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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

September 18, 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by Congress as one provision of the Compromise of 1850. The harsh terms of the act angered many Northerners and contributed to the sectional division over slavery that led to the American Civil War.

The U.S. Constitution and Slavery

When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on the issue of slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming "a more perfect Union" between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition as the nation expanded west in the coming decades.

The Northwest Ordinance

At the same time delegates to the Constitutional Convention set about creating plans for a new government, representatives to the Congress of the existing government established under the Articles of Confederation were meeting in New York. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted "An Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio," that stipulated "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory. . . " That legislation, more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance, had the effect of establishing the Ohio River as the border separating free and slave states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. For the next three decades, that boundary forestalled major sectional disputes over slavery.

The Louisiana Purchase

Circumstances changed in 1803, when Napoleon Bonaparte sold President Thomas Jefferson 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. In hindsight, the Louisiana Purchase may be seen as a logical progression of the American Westward Movement, but at the time, it created new challenges for the Federal government. In addition to land ownership issues regarding the native inhabitants, Congress eventually was forced to address the subject of slavery in the new territory.

The Missouri Compromise

In 1818, the residents of Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 slaves lived in the territory at that time. Southerners expected Missouri to be admitted as a slave state, but New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood measure that would have gradually ended slavery in the new state. The Tallmadge Amendment initiated a year of acrimonious debate in both houses of Congress. Legislators finally reached a compromise in 1820, admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Wishing to avoid similar conflicts in the future, Congress also prohibited slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Territory north of the southern border of Missouri (36°30' north latitude).

The Mexican-American War and the Wilmot Proviso

Although not a perfect solution in the minds of all parties (especially abolitionists), the Missouri Compromise muffled the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States for approximately three decades. The situation changed in 1846, when the U.S. initiated a war with Mexico that was destined to expand greatly American territorial possessions in the West. Only three months after the war began, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot inserted a "proviso" into an appropriations bill sponsored by President James K. Polk that was designed to end hostilities by acquiring Mexican territory. Wilmot’s proviso stipulated that, in any land acquired from Mexico, "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime . . . ." Although variations of Wilmot's Proviso were introduced several times in Congress during the next few years, they were never enacted, yet the measure did succeed in fomenting sectional animosities over the issue of the extension of slavery.

The Compromise of 1850

The main source of sectional discord over slavery transformed from abstract to concrete in 1848, when Mexico ceded vast tracts of land to the United States, including most of modern-day Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, as well as all of present-day California, Nevada, and Utah. Debate over the future of slavery in those territories widened the schism between Northern and Southern views. As the nation inched toward disunion, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of measures, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. Enacted by Congress as separate bills, the Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle the sectional differences dividing the nation by:

1.;;;; Admitting California to the Union as a free state,

2.;;;; Authorizing the territorial legislatures of New Mexico and Utah to determine the status of slavery within their borders,

3.;;;; Settling the Texas boundary dispute in favor of the United States, in exchange for Federal assumption of $10 million of Texas debt,

4.;;;; Abolishing the slave trade but not slavery in the District of Columbia, and

5.;;;; Enacting a more stringent fugitive slave law to help ensure the return of runaway slaves.

Moderates across the country celebrated the legislation, believing that the Union had been saved. President Fillmore proclaimed a "final settlement" to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the debate were not so easily convinced. Free-Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed "the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled." Chase was correct.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

Of all of the components of the Compromise of 1850, many Northerners found the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act the most odious. They objected to the law for several reasons.

First, the terms of the law were much harsher and more unfair to suspected runaway slaves. Fugitives no longer had access to a trial by jury in state and local courts when slave owners or their agents apprehended them in Northern states. Instead, they were brought before newly established federal commissioners who determined their fate. When appearing before the commissioners, alleged runaways were denied the right to call witnesses or testify in their own behalf. Finally, the system rewarded the commissioners for ruling against suspected fugitives. The commissioners received ten dollars, paid by the plaintiffs (slave owners), for each suspect sent back into bondage and half of that amount for each suspect set free. The discrepancy in the reward system certainly created the opportunity for unscrupulous commissioners to profit from sending free blacks south. Whether any commissioners let personal gain cloud their decisions is unknown. What is known, according to modern historians, is that eighty percent of accused runaways brought before federal commissioners were sent into bondage with no opportunity to present evidence, to call witnesses, or to testify to defend themselves

A second reason many Northerners found the new law objectionable was that it impinged upon their own freedom by requiring them to personally participate in the pursuit and apprehension of suspected runaways. Federal commissioners were authorized to deputize citizens and force them to serve on posses against their will. In addition, anyone convicted of aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine – a hefty sum in those days. The new requirements and penalties had two unintended results. They aroused moderate abolitionists and others sympathetic to the plight of runaway slaves by forcing them to choose between their conscience and the law. In addition, the new requirements and penalties mustered new anti-Southern recruits from Northerners who had little concern for the plight of slaves, but who believed that their personal liberties had been violated.

The third source of discontent among Northerners was the expansion of the federal powers that the law established. As noted before, the new system circumvented state and local jurisdictions by authorizing federal commissioners to adjudicate fugitive slave cases. The act also empowered the commissioners to issue warrants, depose witnesses, and employ federal marshals to arrest and imprison suspects within the jurisdictions of the individual states. Federal marshals or local officials who did not cooperate in the pursuit or arrest of alleged runaways were subject to fines of $1,000. State and local officials were obligated to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. At a time when the balance of power between the federal government and the individual state governments was much more ambiguous than it is today, Southerners were not the sole disciples of states' rights arguments. In a strange reversal of roles, Southern apostles of states' rights championed the extension of federal jurisdiction to protect their property rights north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Simultaneously, many Northern promoters of federal authority to limit or even abolish slavery found the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 insidious and threatening to home rule.

Although the number of slaves returned to bondage between the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the beginning of the Civil War may have been fewer than one thousand, the legislation played a major role in U.S. history. Numerous blacks living in the North (free and fugitives alike) grasped their precarious legal status and emigrated to Canada or Europe. White antipathy towards the act in the North (generated by the reasons cited above) magnified the scope and depth of anti-slavery sentiment outside of the South. In reaction, Southerners became further convinced of their Northern neighbors' disregard for their property rights. In short, the act deepened the sectional division threatening the Union and fanned the flames of civil war.

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