Fugitive Slave Act

Fugitive Slave Act
Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1850 as a part of a larger compromise orchestrated by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky in an attempt to patch the growing rift between the North and South over the expansion of slavery into the Western territories.

The law, which was basically a revision of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, was seen as a federal conspiracy by both northerners and southerners and made the prospect of liberty for blacks, north and south, slave and free, seem even further out of reach.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 was passed in a similar climate of sectional differences following the American Revolution (1775 - 1783) and the emergence of the United States as a nation. In 1793, slavery had been abolished or was being abolished in eight of the northern states while it remained legal in seven southern states.

The United States Congress passed the law in 1793 in order to allow slave catchers to return fugitive slaves in the free states back to their owners in the South. The law merely required oral testimony by the slave catcher that the person he had found was indeed a slave. The person thus captured had no guarantee to the right of trial and any person found guilty of harboring the accused fugitive would have to pay a fine of $500.

The law limited the rights of blacks in the North whether a fugitive or born free, because it made it possible for slave catchers to abduct any black person from the North and simply claim that he or she was a runaway slave. Even if an abducted black could prove that he or she had been born free or had been set free, their limited rights to a trial meant that such evidence may not be permitted in court.

Recognizing the disparity between the constitutional rights given to U.S. citizens and the restrictions placed on blacks in the North due to the 1793 laws, many northerners fought to pass state laws that would provide its black citizens with some effective means of getting around the federal law.

Between the passage of the first Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and the second of 1850, several northern states enacted a series of personal liberty laws that would allow captured blacks accused of being fugitives the right to trial by jury and would require written documentation of their ownership to be presented by their captors.

Many such laws also provided for the prosecution of kidnappers who abducted free blacks in the North and forbade the use of state facilities in assisting with such endeavors. Such concessions given to blacks in the North angered southern slave owners, who claimed that the northern states were conspiring against them and denying them of their property and prompted the South to clamor for more rigorous federal enforcement of the 1793 law.

The quest for an end to sectional disagreements in both the Whig and Democratic Parties culminated in Clay’s Compromise of 1850. This compromise consisted of five separate bills:
  1. The admission of California as a free state.
  2. Moving the Texas border east, out of New Mexico territory.
  3. The organization of the Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah territories with a provision that popular sovereignty would decide if they would later be admitted as slave or free states.
  4. The Fugitive Slave Act.
  5. The abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C.
As the biggest concession to slave owners in the South, the new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 succeeded in rolling back some of the rights attained by blacks in the North by overriding the laws of individual states in mandating the return of runaway slaves.

Clay’s bill for the Fugitive Slave Act was divided into four sections. The first allowed the claimant (either the owner or the slave catcher) to take the accused fugitive to any court, commissioner, clerk, marshal, postmaster, or customs official to stake his claim within the state where the alleged fugitive was apprehended. All of the officials of the first section, with the exception of the federal marshal, were granted the authority by the second section to issue a warrant for the arrest of the accused.

The third section doubled the fine set down in 1793 from $500 to $1,000 to anyone found guilty of harboring the accused fugitive or to any federal marshal who failed to enforce the law. The last section of the bill gave federal marshals the right to act in place of the owner or the owner’s agent in capturing suspected fugitives.

Once the bill was passed into law, the act further mandated that commissioners presiding over the cases of accused fugitive slaves would receive a $5 paperwork fee if the accused was set free and a $10 fee if the accused was found guilty and returned to slavery.

Political opponents of the law in the North argued that the difference in the amount paid to the commissioner based on the ruling would entice officials to find in favor of the slave catcher in order to earn more money in such cases.

Southerners, on the other hand, argued that the law did not do enough to ensure that their property was being returned and further argued that northerners were conspiring against them by not attempting to enforce the law. Sectional rivalries between northern and southern whites continued as usual, while blacks in both the North and the South found their prospects for freedom in the United States severely limited.

Though it is unclear whether or not the law actually stopped slaves from attempting to escape to freedom, it is clear that those blacks who had already found their freedom in the North had reason to fear the new law.

Within the first year and a half of the law’s enactment, only five out of eighty-nine accused fugitives were set free. Many northern blacks, fearing seizure, fled further north to Canada. Between the time the bill was passed into law in late September of 1850 and the end of the year, an estimated 3,000 blacks had fled to Canada.

Questions of who the law actually benefited and who it conspired against became irrelevant with the eruption of the American Civil War (1861 - 1865) and the subsequent enactment of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.