Fugitive Slave Law (1850)

The Fugitive Slave Law (1850), a part of the Compromise of 1850, was very controversial. It required all runaway slaves within a certain mile radius from their "home" to return to their masters or be thrown in jail, with no limitations on which blacks could be captured. The Fugitive Slave Law also denied slaves the right to testify in their own defense or trial by jury. The North was subject to southern slave laws, even after previously declaring these laws illegal.
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1. Background
2. Fugitive Slave Law
3. Effects


Prior to the enacting of the Fugitive Slave Law, the United States gained the land that stretches from present-day Texas to California as a result of the Mexican-American War. The Wilmot Proviso of 1846 stated that slavery was not allowed anywhere in the new territory gained from Mexico, resulting in unrest over California’s admittance as a free state. As a consequence of the Wilmot Proviso, the topic of legalization of slavery was one of the biggest challenges that this newly acquired land presented. Because the number of free states was allowed to exceed the number of slave states, there was a political imbalance within the country. The South saw the admittance of California as a free state, as a threat to their way of life.

Fugitive Slave Law

The Fugitive Slave Law, also known as the Fugitive Slave Act, was a part of the Compromise of 1850. Intending to bridge the tension between the northern states and southern states, it attempted to calm the South’s concerns about the spread of anti-slavery movements. It allowed the South the right to recapture fugitive slaves and any slave that had escaped to the North. It further stated that any slave was not allowed the right to testify in their own defense or the right to a trial by jury. Commissioners were appointed for the trials of the slaves and were paid $5 for freeing a fugitive and $10 for returning one to the South. In some cases, African American citizens were captured slaves even though they had been free their entire lives.
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This law, though intended to ease the tension between the North and South, only caused more problems, as it required the North to abide by southern slave laws that they had previously declared illegal. It also opposed the ideas of autonomy that the South supposedly believed in. The Fugitive Slave Law seemed to violate, not only the rights of the fugitive slaves, but the rights of free white northerners as well. The act gave the government the right to deputize citizens and force the white northerners to participate in the seizing of fugitive slaves. The northerners were further alarmed and repulsed that the law did not address anything about blacks that were not fugitive slaves who had lived their entire lives as free citizens. In response to the Fugitive Slave Law, the North formed “vigilance committees” that were prepared to intervene in the recapturing of “slaves.” The Fugitive Slave Law also further angered abolitionists and ignited their desire to put in an end to slavery. Of these is Frederick Douglas, a fugitive slave who escaped from Maryland to the North. He stated in his speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" that "slavery has been nationalized in its more horrible and revolting form". Another northerner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was so against the Fugitive Slave Law that she wrote the book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, calling all people-- men, women, and children-- to defend their freedom. In reaction to the law, secret abolitionists formed the Underground Railroad to aid slaves to freedom, as it reached its peak in activity between 1850 and 1860. Though passed with good intentions, the Fugitive Slave Law only caused the rift between the North and the South to widen, contributing to the later division of the country in the Civil War in 1861.
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