Fugitive Slave Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Upon affidavit made by the claimant . . . he has reason to apprehend that such fugitive will be rescued by force from . . . their possession before he can be taken beyond the limits of the State in which the arrest is made.”

Summary Overview

Signed into law in September of 1850 as one of the five major compromise measures of the sweeping Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act quickly emerged as that series’ most controversial and divisive pieces of legislation. Intended to placate Southern slaveholding interests and thus ease the growing tensions between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South, the Fugitive Slave Act had precisely the opposite effect by dramatically increasing animosity between the regions. The act built upon the existing Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to require Northerners to actively cooperate with runaway slave catchers and placed the decision on the legal status of captured African Americans firmly in the hands of federal judges. The law also punished those who failed to maintain control of captured African Americans or who helped them escape from bondage. The severity of the act immediately inflamed Northerners and bolstered the antislavery movement, but the law itself remained on the books until 1864.

Defining Moment

Tensions over slavery had been rising for decades before the creation of the Compromise of 1850 and the accompanying Fugitive Slave Act. From colonial times, the use of unfree labor had been vital to the economies of the agricultural regions of the American Southeast, where European settlers employed contractually bounded indentured servants and captured African slaves and their descendents as unfree workers. Although slavery had been legal and active in the North during the colonial period, economic shifts, urbanization, and sociopolitical ideas helped make bonded labor less valuable there; states such as Vermont and Massachusetts barred slavery soon after independence, and the institution was prohibited altogether in the Northern frontier of the Northwest Territory. At the same time, however, the growing value of cash crops—particularly cotton—made enslaved labor an ever larger component of the Southern economy. Even after the transatlantic slave trade ended in 1808, the number of slaves in South grew as a result of natural increase. Slavery became ever more entwined with economics in the places where it was practiced.

At the same time, Southern concerns over the issue of fugitive slaves were also rising. Running away was one common form of slave resistance, and the rising number and declining treatment of enslaved African Americans only made the act more likely to occur. Although slaves who escaped with little planning often enjoyed liberty for only a few days before they either returned voluntarily or were captured in the local area, well-planned escapes by those who were unencumbered by family ties—typically young, single men—had a better chance of success. The rise of the Underground Railroad during the first half of nineteenth century also encouraged those who wished to flee slavery, particularly those enslaved in states geographically near free states. Thus, slaveholders strongly desired a new fugitive slave law to repress such attempts.

In January of 1850 and in response to California’s application to join the union as a free state, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed a series of measures aimed at quelling the rising tensions over slavery and thus keeping the nation intact. The resulting Compromise of 1850, passed piecemeal the following September, contained five major provisions. First, California was admitted to the union as a free state. The disputed boundaries of the slave state of Texas were fixed, and, further, the remainder of the previously Mexican land was organized into territories in which voters would determine whether the territory was slave or free. Fourth—and most controversially—a new, stringent Fugitive Slave Act would be adopted to ease the process of recapturing escaped slaves. Finally, the domestic slave trade would be banned in the nation’s capital, Washington, DC.

Author Biography

The US Congress that passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 was one divided along sectional and political lines, largely over the defining political issue of the era—slavery. For decades, Congress had sought to maintain the delicate balance between slave and free states within its halls by selectively admitting states according to their status. In 1820, for example, the Missouri Compromise had sought to prevent an outbreak of sectional tensions by admitting both the slave state of Missouri and the free state of Maine at the same time, thus preventing any one faction from gaining a majority in the Senate. This compromise assured sectional balance in the legislature for several years, but the competing ideologies of political parties grew. From the single-party control of Democratic-Republicans during the so-called Era of Good Feelings during the late 1810s and early 1820s emerged a Congress divided among the Democrats, Whigs, and, by the late 1840s, the Free-Soilers, who opposed the expansion of slavery to the territories.

These political differences were on full display in the votes on all of the measures contained within the Compromise of 1850, but none more so than the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. In total, just thirty-nine of the Senate’s sixty members voted on the law; whether those abstaining from the vote, which included both Northern and Southern members of the body, were simply unable to attend the vote or preferred not have their name attached to the measure in any way remains a question of history. Interestingly, the three senatorial architects of the compromise were among those who did not vote on it; Daniel Webster had left office in late July, while Clay and Stephen Douglas simply declined to cast ballots. Voting patterns on the bill largely followed sectional lines, with all twenty-four Southern senators who cast votes favoring the measure and twelve of fifteen Northern senators who cast votes opposing it. Of the three Northern votes for the measure, all came from Democrats.

The members of the 223-member House of Representatives voted along similar lines. More than 10 percent of the total body chose to abstain from voting, the majority of whom represented free states. Of the 109 total votes in favor of the Fugitive Slave Act, seventy-eight of them came from Southern representatives, none of whom opposed the measure. The remaining support came from Northern representatives, although more than double the number of Northern supporters opposed the law; in fact, just two more Northerners voted in favor of the bill than declined to vote at all. From the beginning, the Fugitive Slave Act was clearly a measure that lacked nationwide support.

Document Analysis

Passed in September of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was one component of the Compromise of 1850 unequivocally aimed at appeasing proslavery Southern interests. Unlike the other measures of the compromise—which allowed states and territories including California, New Mexico, and Utah to pursue was what expected to be an antislavery future in the United States; settled disputes surrounding the boundaries of Texas and New Mexico; and ended the slave trade in Washington, DC—the Fugitive Slave Act offered no benefit for the antislavery North. Instead, the act sought to fulfill something that Southerners had wanted for years: a stronger measure with which to legally demand the return of enslaved human property if that property successfully escaped from bondage.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was not the first measure to address the issue of runaway slaves. The US Constitution had asserted that any person “held in service or labor” in a given state could not be freed under the laws of another state if he or she reached the latter location as a fugitive. Instead, the Constitution affirmed that an escaped slave remained enslaved, and should legally be returned to the appropriate slave owner. What the Constitution did not specify, however, was any means by which this provision could be enacted.

To fill this void, the US Congress passed the nation’s first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. This law proclaimed that Southern slaveholders or slave catchers had the right to seek out escaped slaves in other states, and then to reclaim them as property after presenting evidence to that effect to a magistrate or judge. Under the federal law, captured African Americans had no right to a jury trial, nor did they have the right to present evidence in their own defense. Passed at a time when antislavery sentiment was on the rise—Northern states had already begun abolishing slavery, antislavery societies were growing in number in both the United States and Great Britain, and early abolitionists were beginning to agitate for emancipation—the law surely sought to address a growing problem, from the perspective of Southern slaveholders, of Northern support for what was likely an increasing number of enslaved African Americans.

The law failed to stop escapes, however, and in some ways even encouraged their success. Northerners largely opposed the Fugitive Slave Act as being antithetical to American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice. Even those who did not consider slavery a moral question did take issue with the law’s refusal of a jury trial or even a proper defense when resolving an African American’s status. Before long, antislavery Northerners were resisting the law in a variety of ways. Northern state legislatures passed personal liberty laws that restored some rights to accused fugitive slaves. In some states, convicted African Americans had the right to a jury trial upon appeal. In others, governments provided defense attorneys to aid the accused. Throughout the North, individual action also rose. Antislavery activists in individual communities formed committees that sought to help fugitive slaves and to resist the slave catchers sent to find them. On a broader scale, abolitionists helped organize the Underground Railroad to provide an informal network of safe havens to fugitive slaves traveling from the South to safety in Canada, where slavery was illegal.

Unsurprisingly, Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 angered Southerners, who saw it as an assault of their constitutional property rights. By Southern logic, the US Constitution guaranteed their right to own and hold property, in this case, humans; by escaping, slaves were essentially stealing themselves, and by protecting or aiding them, Northerners were violating the Constitution. Personal liberty laws were a particular sticking point, and in 1842, the US Supreme Court addressed the issue in the case of Prigg v. Pennsylvania. This ruling, over a Pennsylvania law that barred taking African Americans out of the state in order to enslave them, found that the law was unconstitutional under the constitutional supremacy clause granting precedence to federal over state laws. However, the ruling also found that Northern states had no responsibility to enforce Southern laws that had been enacted to capture fugitive slaves across state lines, and it suggested that states could make laws dictating how or whether their own state officials were required to enforce the federal Fugitive Slave Act. As a result, Northern states passed new laws that removed state-level officials from the process of seeking or convicting fugitive slaves altogether. The Fugitive Slave Act stood, but was enforced only by federal agents.

This turn of events further inflamed Southerners. The refusal of Northern states to enforce Southern property rights seemed to Southerners a direct attack by their countrymen on their lives and livelihoods. Calls for a new, more stringent federal fugitive slave law that would create an environment more conducive to the easy capture and conviction of fugitive slaves throughout the nation arose in the South. After California applied to join the Union as a free state in 1849 and the admission of New Mexico and Utah along the same lines seemed imminent, political leaders realized that Southerners would reject such a major expansion of organized free US territory without concessions to proslavery interests. One of those concessions was the adoption of the Compromise of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, a law that directly built upon the embattled 1793 measure.

The new Fugitive Slave Act set the process of capturing, trying, and returning suspected fugitive slaves firmly into the federal arena. At its outset, the law asserted the right of federal officials to be the new national slave catchers as the law’s primary enforcers. The opening section affirms that federal commissioners had the powers of “arresting, imprisoning, or bailing” any criminals so defined within the law—in other words, fugitive slaves. It further both “authorized and required” these commissioners to complete their duties, in contrast to the state officials whom had been found to not be required to execute the federal law. This time, Congress wanted to ensure that the law was enforced. Furthermore, in its second section the law named the territorial superior courts equal to the US circuit courts for the purposes of enforcing the law. Like circuit courts, territorial superior courts gained the power to appoint the special commissioners charged with executing the Fugitive Slave Act; all these courts also gained the ability to “exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.” In other words, state courts, attached as they were to state legislatures that were sometimes antislavery, no longer had any role in the process of trying fugitive slaves. Instead, the federal government reigned supreme.

The next few sections of the law addressed further administrative details of the execution of the act. Section 3 empowered the US Circuit Courts and their territorial equivalents to hire more commissioners as needed to adequately pursue and try accused fugitives. The following section granted the federal commissioners jurisdiction throughout the circuit, district, or territorial division in which they were appointed; further, it granted these commissioners the power to bestow the certificates upon which the legal process surrounding the capture of fugitive slaves was based. Section 5 of the law charged federal marshals and deputy marshals with the enforcement of warrants and other relevant legal orders in fugitive slave cases, taking them out of the hands of state officials. Marshals who refused to perform their duties were subject to a substantial fine, and those who lost custody of an accused fugitive slave either willingly or accidentally were financially liable to the escapee’s alleged owner for that person’s market value in the slave owner’s state. This same section also permitted federal commissioners to deputize any “one or more suitable persons” to carry out fugitive slave warrants and even to summon others living in the area to assist in the process. In no way could proslavery forces argue that the new Fugitive Slave Act failed to provide for adequate manpower to carry out its strictures.

After putting in place both the federal supremacy in the enforcement of the law and a structure of specially charged federal officials to carry it out, the Fugitive Slave Act moves to the central issue: how to find, claim, try, and restore slave owners’ errant human property. Section 6 of the law declares that the owner or properly authorized agent of a runaway slave who crossed from his or her home state or territory into another had the right to “pursue and reclaim” that fugitive in the state or territory to which he or she had fled. After capture, the fugitive slave was tried and, as the later portions of the law assure, most likely convicted; the act continues that owners or agents could present a written affidavit of the fugitive’s identity and status as an enslaved, rather than free, African American and as a piece of property held by the slave owner bringing the action. The slave owner or agent had the right to present a great deal of evidence supporting the claim that the accused was, in fact, a fugitive slave; the accused, however, was expressly forbidden from entering testimony in his or her own defense. Instead, the certificates asserting the slave owner’s claims about the fugitive’s status “shall be conclusive . . . to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.”

The process for issuing these vital certificates is detailed in the Fugitive Slave Act’s final section. Under the law, a slave owner, or that person’s representative, could seek a certificate in the court of his choice. That court was responsible for recording details that were used to identify the accused fugitive slave—little more than “a general description”—and that told about the events of the accused person’s escape. These details were provided by the claimant to the court and served to provide the “full and conclusive evidence” of the escape, the identity of the fugitive, and the fact that the person in question was legitimately owned by the slaveholder asserting the claim. This certificate served as a legal basis to seize, try, and transport the accused fugitive in any US state or territory and acted as the main evidence in any trial.

These actions clearly stacked the legal deck against African Americans, fugitive slaves and free blacks alike. The certificates of proof could be issued by a court in the slave owner’s home state and carried the force of law wherever they were taken; the certificates were the sole permissible form of evidence in a fugitive slave trial. Thus, a free African American kidnapped and accused of being a fugitive slave lacked the legal right to present documentation in his or her own defense. The accused lacked any way to prove their identities or display manumission papers or other records to show either that they were not the persons named in any certificates or that the statements made by the certificates were invalid. To be captured and tried was practically as good as being captured and sent to slavery, with only something of a sham legal proceeding intervening. The earlier actions of Northern state courts to help keep possible fugitives from being quickly sent South were thus impeded.

The Fugitive Slave Act also outlawed individual action in support of fugitive slaves. Anyone who “knowingly and willingly” interfered with the efforts of a slave owner, or any of that owner’s agents or representatives, to seize and try a suspected fugitive faced legal penalty, as did anyone who worked to help a fugitive slave escape from the slave catchers’ “justice” by helping that fugitive travel or hide, as on the Underground Railroad. These penalties were steep; convicted white sympathizers faced a fine of up to one thousand dollars—as much as twenty-five thousand dollars in modern terms—and a term in prison of up to six months. A person convicted of helping a fugitive slave successfully escape was also held financially liable for the slave owner’s loss of property in the amount of one thousand dollars per head. The chain of forced responsibility did not end with capture. The arresting officer was legally bound by section 9 to ensure that the fugitive slave did not escape his custody, and was charged “to employ so many persons as he may deem necessary to overcome” anyone who might try to help the fugitive get away. No longer could Northerners show opposition to Southern slavery through this type of activism, or even through benign apathy, without facing serious potential consequences. Even those opposed to slavery were now legally required to support slave owners living in distant slave states.

Further, the Fugitive Slave Act incentivized the capture and conviction of African Americans regardless of their actual status as fugitive slaves or free blacks through its system of payment. Under the law, the slave owner who made the legal claim was responsible for paying the commissioners and others in the process, as well as for the food, shelter, and other basic needs of an accused fugitive held in custody. Federal commissioners who tried and convicted a fugitive slave received ten dollars for their services; commissioners who tried, but did not convict, a fugitive slave were paid only five dollars. Those who caught and arrested a suspected fugitive received five dollars per head. A convicted fugitive slave was worth more to a commissioner than a freed defendant. The seizure of essentially any African American could generate income for the person who performed the arrest. Thus, the financial structure of the law encouraged the arrest of anyone as a suspected fugitive, rather than the actual person in question, so long as the slave owner was not too particular. It further urged federal commissioners to take the easy route of finding that person guilty of being a fugitive slave.

Unsurprisingly, these measures terrified free blacks living in the North and appalled all people committed to the American ideals of justice. Northern opposition to the practice of capturing and returning fugitive slaves without adequate legal protections was obvious in the region’s history of personal liberty laws and lack of concerted effort to execute the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Yet the law now made all Northerners active members of the slaveholding society by forcing them to carry out the law or face direct personal penalty. It also allowed for the easy conviction of any accused fugitive with essentially no opportunity for defense. As part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act showed that the expansion of free US territory was in no way an invitation for African Americans to live freely in it.

Essential Themes

In theory, the Fugitive Slave Act had been created to ease tensions over slavery. The law granted Southerners something that they deeply desired—stronger legal action against escaped slaves—in exchange for the prospect of a growing number of free territories. The reality of the Fugitive Slave Act was quite different than the theory, however. In practice, the law enraged Northerners who were forced not merely to tolerate the existence of slavery across their borders but also to work directly to support slave owners through the active policing and threatened consequences of neglecting to capture and to hold a suspected runaway. The law’s structure for managing the status of captured African Americans suspected of being fugitives was quickly and accurately viewed as overly weighted in favor of the slaveholders; over the next several years, more than three hundred captured African Americans were sent to the South. In contrast, just a handful of people managed to maintain their freedom after being taken into custody. The law, in effect, began what escaped slave and Northerner Harriet Jacobs called “the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population” (286). African Americans in the North who had escaped from slavery decades previously faced the possibility of being captured and re-enslaved; children and young people who had, they believed, been born free could be taken because their mother had been an escaped slave. Even those who had gained freedom legally lacked the ability to prove their case in court, and thus could be wrongfully re-enslaved. Unsurprisingly, numerous African Americans fled the North to the safety of Canada.

The law energized the abolition movement and persuaded more Northerners to support the cause of abolition. Previously, black abolitionists had been on the whole more vocal and more radical than their white counterparts. The Fugitive Slave Act changed all that as white abolitionists lashed out against what they saw as enforced complicity in slavery. The operations of the Underground Railroad improved as the ranks and dedication of abolitionists increased. Several Northern states also responded to the act by passing personal liberty laws that sought to contravene its most extreme measures. These laws allowed suspected fugitives to appeal their case before a jury, for example, and placed harsh punishments on those who took African Americans illegally or lied to force them to return to slavery. Such laws further angered Southern leaders, who saw them as an attack on their rights to maintain slavery. Writing in December of 1860, just ten years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the leaders of South Carolina declared that these laws were evidence of the breached contract among the states guaranteed in the US Constitution and one of the main reasons that the state was declaring its secession from the United States. Ultimately, the Fugitive Slave Act contributed directly to the very conflict that it sought to prevent: the breakup of the United States of America and the beginning of the Civil War that followed.

  • Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850. New York: Norton, 1964. Print.
  • Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Boston, 1861. Print.
  • Prigg v. Pennsylvania.” Oyez. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.
  • Ransom, Roger L. Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and the American Civil War. New York: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.
  • Remini, Robert V. At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union. New York: Perseus, 2010. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Brown, William Wells. From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown. New York: Mentor, 1993. Print.
  • Thompson, John. The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave: Containing His History of Twenty-Five Years in Bondage and His Providential Escape. 1856. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

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