Second Fugitive Slave Law

The Second Fugitive Slave Law, aimed at making the rendition of captured fugitive slaves from northern states easier for southern slaveholders, exacerbated tensions between the North and South and contributed to the developments that eventually led to the U.S. Civil War.

Summary of Event

In September, 1850, the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 passed the Second Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850;and Fugitive Slave Law[Fugitive Slave Law] Compromise of 1850. This compromise, its supporters hoped, would provide a permanent settlement of the long-standing dispute between the North and the South over slavery. The dispute had reached crisis proportions in 1848, after the United States forcefully acquired from Mexico huge territories in the Southwest, which raised the issue of the status of slavery in those territories. Most of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850 dealt with that issue. Southern white spokespersons also insisted that the government do something to prevent slave escapes into the North and to make it easier for masters to reclaim fugitive slaves from there. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
[kw]Second Fugitive Slave Law (Sept. 18, 1850)
[kw]Fugitive Slave Law, Second (Sept. 18, 1850)
[kw]Slave Law, Second Fugitive (Sept. 18, 1850)
[kw]Law, Second Fugitive Slave (Sept. 18, 1850)
Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
[g]United States;Sept. 18, 1850: Second Fugitive Slave Law[2760]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Sept. 18, 1850: Second Fugitive Slave Law[2760]
[c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 18, 1850: Second Fugitive Slave Law[2760]
Mason, James Murray
Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and Fugitive Slave Law[Fugitive Slave Law]
Stowe, Harriet Beecher
Tubman, Harriet

Slave escapes had been common long before the United States became an independent country. It was the decision of the northern states following the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) American Revolution (1775-1783);and slavery[Slavery] to abolish slavery within their bounds that created a sectional issue. As a result, in 1787, southern influence brought about the insertion in the U.S. Constitution Constitution, U.S.;and slavery[Slavery] of a clause providing that slaves escaping from one state to another were not to be freed but returned to their masters.

Contemporary lithograph depicting the horrors of slave-catching. At the lower left is a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy forbidding the returning of escaping servants to their masters.

(Library of Congress)

This clause established the constitutional basis for fugitive slave laws. Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 The first such law, passed by Congress in 1793, allowed masters, on their own, to apprehend escaped slaves in the free states. Although this law provided no legal protection for persons accused of being fugitive slaves, neither did it authorize state or federal assistance for masters attempting to reclaim slaves.

Several events during the 1840’s prompted southern whites to intensify demands for a stronger fugitive slave law. First, the number of slave escapes increased as the slave labor system in the border slave states weakened. Second, a few black and white abolitionists became active in helping slaves escape. Third, northern states began passing “personal liberty laws” requiring jury trials to determine the status of African Americans accused of being fugitive slaves. Such trials provided protection to those falsely accused and also made it more difficult for masters to reclaim actual escapees.

The Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;on slavery[Slavery] addressed this last issue in the case of Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Prigg v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1842). In Prigg, the Court ruled that a state could not interfere with the right of a master to recapture slaves. The Court also ruled, however, that, because the power to legislate on the fugitive slave issue was purely national, states were not required to assist in the enforcement of the First Fugitive Slave Law. This ruling allowed for a new series of personal liberty laws that denied masters the support they needed to apprehend alleged slaves. For many southern whites, who feared that slave escapes were a major threat to the existence of slavery in the border slave states, the fugitive slave law issue loomed as large as the issue of slavery in the territories during the late 1840’s. In response to these concerns, Senator James Mason Mason, James Murray of Virginia proposed the passage of a new and stronger fugitive slave law, on January 3, 1850.

When Mason’s much-amended bill became law nine months later, it appeared to be all that southern whites demanded. It provided that United States marshals had to assist masters in arresting fugitive slaves and that the marshals could, in turn, summon northern citizens to help. It provided that United States circuit courts appoint numerous commissioners who were empowered to evaluate the truth of a master’s claim and authorize the return of fugitives to a master’s state. Accused fugitives were not permitted to testify before the commissioners. The commissioners would receive a fee of ten dollars if they accepted a master’s claim and only five dollars if they did not. Anyone who interfered with the apprehension of alleged fugitive slaves or who helped such persons escape was subject to a fine of up to one thousand dollars and imprisonment for up to six months.

To many northerners, the new law seemed to be excessively harsh and corrupting. Even northerners who expressed no opposition to slavery in the South had little enthusiasm for assisting in the rendition of fugitive slaves. The denial to the accused of the right to testify, of the writ of habeas corpus Habeas corpus;in United States[United States] , and of a jury trial appeared to be invitations for the unscrupulous to use the new law to facilitate kidnaping of free Free blacks;and fugitive slave laws[Fugitive slave Laws] African American northerners. That commissioners were paid more to remand to the South persons accused of being fugitive slaves than to exonerate such persons seemed to be a bribe in behalf of the putative masters. The official explanation of the different fees—that to send the accused back to the South required more paperwork than to reject a master’s claim—seemed a disingenuous excuse to many northerners. Finally, because the law was retroactive, fugitive slaves who had lived safely in the North for many years were now subject to recapture.

To abolitionists, who opposed the very existence of slavery and encouraged slaves to escape, and to antislavery politicians, who contended that the South was seeking to expand its slave system into the North, the new law was anathema. The law’s harshness and its apparent invasion of northern states’ rights led less committed northerners to oppose it as well. Even as the bill that became the Second Fugitive Slave Law made its way through Congress, antislavery senators Salmon P. Chase Chase, Salmon P.
[p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Fugitive Slave Law[Fugitive Slave Law] of Ohio and William H. Seward Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and Fugitive Slave Law[Fugitive Slave Law] of New York attempted, without success, to defeat it or to include in it provisions for jury trials. Antislavery northerners denounced Senator Daniel Webster Webster, Daniel
[p]Webster, Daniel;and Fugitive Slave Law[Fugitive Slave Law] of Massachusetts for his March 7, 1850, endorsement of the bill. When his bill became law on September 18, there were protests throughout the North, although most northerners acquiesced in its enforcement.

In many instances, however, enforcement was difficult. As soon as the law went into effect, African Americans escaping from the South went to Canada, Canada;and fugitive slaves[Fugitive slaves] beyond the reach of the law. Others who had lived in the North for years took refuge across the Canadian border in times of danger. New personal liberty laws in a number of northern states—several of which required jury trials—not only protected those falsely charged with being fugitive slaves but, by adding expenses, discouraged masters from pressing claims. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)[Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe)]
Stowe, Harriet Beecher first published in serial form in 1851-1852, both reflected and encouraged northern antipathy to the Second Fugitive Slave Law. By portraying slavery as a brutal system and depicting fugitive slaves sympathetically, Stowe aroused an emotional northern reaction against the law.

Most striking, both black and white people physically resisted enforcement of the law throughout the 1850’s. Shortly after the law went into effect, former slave Harriet Tubman, Tubman, Harriet with the help of black and white abolitionists, began her career of leading bands of slaves out of the South. Meanwhile, in Boston, Massachusetts; Christiana, Pennsylvania; Syracuse, New York; Wellington, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and elsewhere in the North, armed biracial mobs obstructed the enforcement of the act.


Although the law was peacefully enforced in large regions of the North, its most important effect was to widen the gulf between the North and South. Many northerners considered the law to be unconstitutional and an immoral southern aggression, in behalf of an oppressive institution, upon not only African Americans but also the rights and values of northern whites. White southerners, many of whom had predicted that the new Fugitive Slave Law would be ineffective, regarded northern resistance to it as another sign of antipathy toward the South and its institutions. What had been designed as part of a compromise to quiet sectional animosities, instead increased those animosities and helped lead the nation into civil war Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);and Fugitive Slave Law[Fugitive Slave Law] in 1861.

Further Reading

  • Brandt, Nat. The Town That Started the Civil War. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990. Analyzes events related to the Oberlin-Wellington fugitive slave rescue of 1859, one of the more famous instances of violent resistance to the Second Fugitive Slave Law.
  • Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. Discusses the background, constitutionality, and northern reaction to the Second Fugitive Slave Law, as well as its enforcement.
  • Clinton, Catherine. Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom. New York: Little, Brown, 2004. A detailed biography that places Tubman’s life within the context of the abolitionist movement and the South of the nineteenth century.
  • Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850. New York: W. W. Norton, 1964. Places the Second Fugitive Slave Law in the context of a broader discussion of the Compromise of 1850.
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861. Completed and edited by Don. E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. A thorough political history of the era during which the Second Fugitive Slave Law was passed and enforced.
  • Slaughter, Thomas P. Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Places the Christiana riot, one example of violent resistance to the Second Fugitive Slave Law, in the broader context of white racism and African American poverty.

Underground Railroad Flourishes

Compromise of 1850

Stowe Publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile

U.S. Civil War

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

First Underground Railroad Opens in London

Reconstruction of the South

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Salmon P. Chase; Frederick Douglass; Charlotte Forten; William Lloyd Garrison; William H. Seward; Harriet Beecher Stowe; Roger Brooke Taney; Harriet Tubman; Daniel Webster. Fugitive Slave Law of 1850