The Fugitive Slave Law and Runaways

Printed in 1851, this flier was circulated around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of any runaway slaves (Source: Harvard Square Library)

This poster was distributed around Boston and warned African-Americans of the Fugitive Slave acts, which legalized the capture and return of runaway slaves. (Source: Harvard Square Library)

In 1850, Congressional leaders made their last valiant efforts to forestall conflict between the North and the South. However, in their attempts to reach some form of compromise, they unwittingly set the stage for the Civil War.

Some might say that civil war was the price the United States paid for orchestrating war with Mexico in 1848. By invading Mexico, or at least by sending troops to contested territory, the United States ultimately gained a huge swath of land that included modern day California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Like Thomas Jefferson before them when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, most American leaders probably believed it would take generations before much of the new territory would be ripe for statehood. But history is full of unforeseen consequences, and James Marshall’s gold discovery in Coloma, California, accelerated the process by attracting sufficient numbers of Americans who wanted statehood. More importantly, California’s citizens had enacted a constitution that prohibited slavery.

For years, Southern leaders had sought to maintain balance in the United States Senate, admitting a free state to the union only while admitting a slave state at the same time. In 1850, they had many demands on the table: carving up Texas into a number of states in an effort to maintain equal representation in the Senate; continued legality of slavery in the nation’s capital, anathema to antislavery Northerners; and a stricter fugitive slave law to insure recovery of runaway slaves.

Anti-slavery forces in the North also had an agenda: admission of California and other future states acquired from the Mexican War as free states and abolition of the slave trade in the nation’s capital.

1850 also saw the last great stand of the Senate’s most famous orators: Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, John Calhoun of South Carolina, and Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay sought to ease tensions by proposing a series of resolutions. Each resolution offered something to the North, balanced with an inducement to the South. His strategy failed, but Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s chief opponent for the presidency ten years later, succeeded by gathering enough votes from Upper South and Midwest representatives, who approved the package as a whole.

Painting titled "Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law" (Source: Library of Congress)

Painting titled “Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law” (Source: Library of Congress)

Before the Compromise of 1850, a 1793 federal statute authorized Southerners to enter free states to capture runaway slaves, but state authorities were not obligated to enforce the law. Prigg v. Pennsylvania (United States Supreme Court 1842). One of the compromise’s components, the Fugitive Slave Law, sought to remedy Southerners’ dissatisfaction with existing law by creating a category of federal commissioners empowered to arrest and return runaways to their owners. The law also gave the commissioners authority to deputize any citizen to assist in enforcement of the law.

While many Northerners did not object to slavery where it lawfully existed, they took great exception to playing any role in its enforcement. Southern slave owners, who thought they finally had obtained a meaningful process for retrieving their fugitive property, fumed about Northerners’ resistance to the law’s enforcement and Northern states’ passage of personal liberty laws designed to thwart the enforcement of the law. Within a year of the law’s enactment, it became clear that enacting a law is considerably less difficult than executing it. After 1851, few runaways were returned to their owners under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a fictional but faithful account of a runaway slave’s stop at an Underground Railroad station, please see the “Runaway” chapter in my historical novel, New Garden, available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel’s “Charleston” chapter about the Democratic Convention of 1860 also depicts Southern politicians’ dissatisfaction with Northerners’ resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law.

For a more detailed historical account of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, see Professor James McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire, pages 70-89 (3rd Edition, McGraw Hill 2001).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, Congress, history, Presidents, slavery, United States

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