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File:Slave kidnap post 1851 boston.jpg

An April 24, 1851 poster warning colored people in Boston about policemen acting as slave catchers.

The Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers. This was one of the most controversial acts of the 1850 compromise and heightened Northern fears of a 'slave power conspiracy'. It declared that all runaway slaves be brought back to their masters. Abolitionists nicknamed it the "Bloodhound Law" for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.


The earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was a Federal law which was written with the intention of enforcing Article 4, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which required the return of runaway slaves. It sought to force the authorities in free states to return fugitive slaves to their masters.

Some Northern states passed"personal liberty laws", mandating a jury trial before alleged fugitive slaves could be moved. Otherwise, they feared free blacks could be kidnapped into slavery. Other states forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the arrest or return of such fugitives. In some cases, juries simply refused to convict individuals who had been indicted under the Federal law. Moreover, locals in some areas actively fought attempts to seize fugitives and return them to the South. And everywhere that was not tied with slavery, abolitionists spoke against this.

The Missouri Supreme Court routinely held that voluntary transportation of slaves into free states, with the intent of residing there permanently or definitely, automatically made them free.[1] The Fugitive Slave Law dealt with slaves who went into free states without their master's consent. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), that states did not have to offer aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves, greatly weakening the law of 1793.

New law[]

Template:Slavery In the response to the weakening of the original fugitive slave act, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made any Federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Since any suspected slave was not eligible for a trial this led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery as they had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations. [2]


In fact, the Fugitive Slave Law brought the issue home to anti-slavery citizens in the North, since it made them and their institutions responsible for enforcing slavery. Even moderate abolitionists were now faced with the immediate choice of defying what they believed an unjust law or breaking with their own consciences and beliefs. The case of Anthony Burns fell under this statute.

The Fugitive Slave Act brought a defiant response from abolitionists. Reverend Luther Lee, pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, New York wrote in 1855:

I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the authorities wanted anything of me, my residence was at 39 Onondaga Street. I would admit that and they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough on Onondaga County to level it to the ground before the next morning. The slaves could no longer take control over what they could never imagine.

This was far from empty rhetoric; several years before, in the famous Jerry Rescue, Syracuse abolitionists did free by force a fugitive slave who was about to be sent back into the South and successfully smuggled him to Canada.

In 1854, the Wisconsin Supreme Court became the only state high court to declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, as a result of a case involving fugitive slave Joshua Glover, and Sherman Booth, who led efforts that thwarted Glover's recapture. Ultimately, in 1859 in Ableman v. Booth the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state court.[3][4]

Other opponents, such as African American leader Harriet Tubman, simply treated the law as just another complication in their activities. The most important reaction was making the neighboring country of Canada the main destination of choice for runaway slaves.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, General Benjamin Butler justified refusing to return runaway slaves in accordance to this law because the Union and the Confederacy were at war: the slaves could be confiscated and set free as contraband of war. The South also argued that the Fugitive Slave Act only applied to the Union; the South had broken away, so the law did not apply to the Confederacy.

See also[]

Incidents involving fugitive slaves:

  • Passmore Williamson
  • Anthony Burns
  • Christiana incident (or riot), 1851
  • Joshua Glover
  • The Jerry Rescue
  • Shadrach Minkins



  1. "Missouri courts on a number of occasions had granted freedom to slaves whose owners had taken them for long periods of residence in free states or territories", America in 1857: A nation on the Brink by Kenneth M. Stampp (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 84.
  2. action=view&term_id=9153&keyword=fugitive+slave+act Fugitive Slave Act
  3. Booth, Sherman Miller 1812 - 1904
  4. Fugitive Slave Act

External links[]

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