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The Fugitive Slave Act, Part of the Compromise of 1850

On September 18, 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850. Highly controversial for its time, the Fugitive Slave Act declared that any runaway slaves, who had escaped their masters and were living free in the North, should be returned at once to their masters in the South.

Over half a century earlier, in 1793, a previous Fugitive Slave Act also called for the return of any slave runaways. However, at that time, several Northern states began requiring a trial prior to the return of any alleged fugitive slaves. Ultimately, many of the Northern states did not necessarily follow this act. Instead of blindly following orders to return “runaways”, they created laws to ensure the personal liberties of all citizens were protected. These northern states passed into law trials for “runaways”, which were supposed to prevent any free blacks from being kidnapped and unjustly sent into slavery in the South. During these trials, Northern juries required proof that the “runaway” was in fact the person that the “master” said he was, and in most cases they ruled in favor of protecting slaves that had escaped to freedom.

In 1842, the United States Supreme Court, just prior to the Fugitive Slave Act, ruled that states did not have to help masters hunt down or capture their fugitive slaves. This weakened the initial Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, and made it considerably more difficult for masters to track down any escaped slaves.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a direct response to the weakening to the initial Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. It included a condition that made Federal marshals pay hefty fines if they did not cooperate with the return of the fugitive slaves to their masters. Those who complied with the Act and captured the fugitives were given monetary bonuses. Not only were the Federal marshals held accountable, but private citizens that were found to be assisting the runaway slaves (either by providing food, shelter or transportation) were also subject to fines and imprisonment- meaning those abolitionists that assisted runaways across the Underground Railroad were directly targeted by the law.

Supposedly ‘proving’ ownership of slaves was not difficult; the slave owners merely had to give an affidavit to the Feds claiming ownership. This easy method of proof resulted in many free blacks being captured and put into slavery, since once they were accused of being a fugitive slave, they had no rights to a trial (North or South) and any claim by a slave owner was taken to be true.

Of all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial. It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It denied a fugitive's right to a jury trial. Instead, cases would be handled by special commissioners – temporary judges who would be paid $5 if an alleged fugitive were released and $10 if he or she were sent away to their old master. The act called for changes in filing for a claim, making the process easier for slave-owners

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 angered abolitionists in every state. With every citizen having assist in the return of fugitive slaves to their masters, many were forced to confront their own beliefs and act with conscience. Many abolitionists refused to follow the law and instead choose to be arrested and imprisoned. These citizens appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court, pleading that the law they were convicted of was unconstitutional. Anti-slavery feelings were growing in the North.

Throughout the Northern states, abolitionists continued to aid and hide fugitive slaves and help them find safe passage to Canada. Authorities could not come close to keeping up with these escape routes.

Finally, in 1854, the first state high court declared the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to be unconstitutional. The state of Wisconsin ruled in favor of abolitionist Sherman Booth, who had helped a runaway, Joshua Glover, escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court eventually overturned this ruling, declaring the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to be constitutional. This political move frustrated the abolitionists, even those who considered themselves to be less extreme.

Famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman worked hard to make the Underground Railroad a successful way for fugitive slaves to find their way to freedom. Canada was encouraged as a safe place for escaping slaves, and once they crossed the borders, they were welcomed as free citizens, making Canada the primary destination for those trying to break free from the bonds of slavery and imprisonment. Those opposed to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 were forced to confront their beliefs and decide whether to follow the law, and thus report or detain those escaping slavery, or instead break the law and either help the runaways or turn a “blind eye”.

Though initially considered to be a ‘compromise’ and intended to lessen the tensions between the North and South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ultimately served as a way for Northerners to actively fight against slavery. Common citizens rebelled against their “responsibilities” to return slaves to their masters, and resisted the punishments handed down by their government. By polarizing, splitting apart, the nation in such a way, the Fugitive Slave Act increased tensions between the North and South.
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