Fugitive Slave Act

Illustration of a fugitive slave being seized.
A freedom seeker being seized.  Getty Images

The Fugitive Slave Act, which became law as part of the Compromise of 1850, was one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in American history. It was not the first law to deal with freedom seekers, but it was the most extreme, and its passage generated intense feelings on both sides of the issue of enslavement.

To supporters of enslavement in the South, a tough law mandating the hunting, capture, and return of freedom seekers was long overdue. Feeling in the South had been that northerners traditionally scoffed at the matter of freedom seekers and often encouraged their escape.

In the North, the implementation of the law brought the injustice of enslavement home, making the issue impossible to ignore. Enforcement of the law would mean anyone in the North could be complicit in the horrors of enslavement.

The Fugitive Slave Act helped inspire a a highly influential work of American literature, the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book, which depicted how Americans of various regions dealt with the law, became extremely popular, as families would read it aloud in their homes. In the North, the novel brought difficult moral issues raised by the Fugitive Slave Act into the parlors of ordinary American families.

Earlier Fugitive Slave Laws

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was ultimately based on the U.S. Constitution. In Article IV, Section 2, the Constitution contained the following language (which was eventually eliminated by the ratification of the 13th Amendment):

"No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due."

Though the drafters of the Constitution carefully avoided direct mention of enslavement, that passage clearly meant that freedom seekers who escaped into another state would not be free and would be returned.

In some northern states where the practice was already on the way to being outlawed, there was a fear that free Black people would be seized and carried off into enslavement. The governor of Pennsylvania asked President George Washington for clarification of the fugitive enslavement language in the Constitution, and Washington asked Congress to legislate upon the subject.

The result was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. However, the new law was not what the growing anti-enslavement movement in the North would have wanted. The states in the South were able to put together a unified front in Congress and obtained a law that provided a legal structure by which freedom seekers would be returned to their enslavers.

Yet the 1793 law proved to be weak. It was not widely enforced, partly because enslavers would have to bear the costs of having freedom seekers captured and returned.

The Compromise of 1850

The need for a stronger law dealing with freedom seekers became a steady demand of the politicians in the South, especially in the 1840s, as the North American 19th-century Black activist movement gained momentum in the North. When new legislation concerning enslavement became necessary when the United States gained new territory following the Mexican War, the issue of freedom seekers came up.

The combination of bills which became known as the Compromise of 1850 was intended to calm tensions over enslavement, and it did essentially delay the Civil War by a decade. But one of its provisions was the new Fugitive Slave Law, which created a whole new set of problems.

The new law was fairly complex, consisting of ten sections that laid out the terms by which freedom seekers could be pursued in the free states. The law essentially established that freedom seekers were still subject to the laws of the state from which they had fled.

The law also created a legal structure to oversee the capture and return of freedom seekers. Prior to the 1850 law, a freedom seeker could be sent back to enslavement hard to enforce.

The new law created commissioners who would get to decide whether a freedom seeker captured on free soil would be returned to enslavement. The commissioners were seen as essentially corrupt, as they would be paid a fee of $5.00 if they declared a fugitive free or $10.00 if they decided the person had to be returned to the states that allowed enslavement.

Outrage

As the federal government was now putting financial resources into the capture of enslaved people, many in the North saw the new law as essentially immoral. And the apparent corruption built into the law also raised the reasonable fear that free Black people in the North would be seized, accused of being freedom seekers, and sent to states that allowed enslavement where they had never lived.

The 1850 law, instead of reducing tensions over enslavement, actually inflamed them. The author Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired by the law to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. In her landmark novel, the action does not only take place in the states that allowed enslavement, but also in the North, where the horrors of the institution were beginning to intrude.

Resistance to the law created many incidents, some of them fairly notable. In 1851, a Maryland enslaver, seeking to use the law to gain the return of enslaved people, was shot dead in an incident in Pennsylvania. In 1854 a freedom seeker seized in Boston, Anthony Burns, was returned to enslavement but not before mass protests sought to block the actions of federal troops.

Activists of the Underground Railroad had been helping freedom seekers escape to freedom in the North before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. And when the new law was enacted it made helping freedom seekers a violation of federal law.

Although the law was conceived as an effort to preserve the Union, citizens of southern states felt the law was not enforced vigorously, and that may have only intensified the desire of southern states to secede.