The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slaves in antebellum America-The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850The most divisive law of the antebellum period was easily the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 just as the Dred Scott decision was the most divisive court ruling. The law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 along with five other specific laws that attempted to maintain the balance between slave states and free states.

The act was passed by the was passed by the Senate 27-12, and by the House 109-76 on September 18, 1850. It was immediately signed by President Millard Fillmore. It was a successor to the earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. That law  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. But officials in Northern states used a variety of means to circumvent the earlier law. They passed “personal liberty laws“. These laws mandated a jury trial before alleged fugitive slaves could be moved and others forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the arrest or return of alleged fugitive slaves. In some cases, juries refused to convict individuals who had been indicted under the Federal law.

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. 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.

The Southern states saw the non-cooperation of Northern states as a means of gradually bleeding away their property rights. In some cases Southern slaveholders organized raids into Northern states in order to capture fugitive slaves.

In 1847 and 1849, planters from Bourbon and Boone Counties in northern Kentucky led raids into Cass County, Michigan to recapture runaway slaves. The raids failed of their objective but strengthened Southern demands for passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 gave the Southerners in Congress the opportunity to strengthen the earlier law. The new law made any Federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $28,000 in present-day value).

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, the law made any person aiding a fugitive slave subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Meanwhile, officers who captured fugitive slaves were entitled to to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The opportunities for the abuse of the law were rampant. Being unable to testify in court many free blacks were captured and transported South to spend years in slavery even though they were free. The case of Solomon Northup, free-born black man from New York State is just one among many. His story was told in 12 Years a Slave, a book that he wrote after he was freed by a court in Louisiana.

In November 1850 Vermont’s  legislature approved the “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring Vermont judicial and law enforcement officials to assist captured fugitive slaves. This law rendered the federal Fugitive Slave Act effectively unenforceable in Vermont and caused a storm of controversy nationally because it was a “nullification” of federal law, a concept that had become highly charged in debates over slavery.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court  declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional in 1854, 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.

In November 1850 Vermont’s  legislature approved the “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring Vermont judicial and law enforcement officials to assist captured fugitive slaves. This law rendered the federal Fugitive Slave Act effectively unenforceable in Vermont and caused a storm of controversy nationally because it was a “nullification” of federal law, a concept that had become highly charged in debates over slavery.

In essence the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made every person who aided or assisted a runaway slave into a criminal. It’s enforcement in the North brought the issue of slavery home to citizens there. Abolitionists were faced with the prospect of breaking the law or going against their personal beliefs. Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 was one response to the law.

Abolitionists continued to aid runaway slaves and after the signing of the law Canada became a destination of choice. There the former slaves would enjoy absolute freedom without a fear of being returned to their former state of slavery.





Free State, Slave State and the Northwest Ordinance

This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slaves picking cottonAs the United States expanded beyond the original 13 states clinging to the Atlantic Ocean, it became apparent that the country needed a law to allow the admission of free states and slave states. The first attempt was the Northwest Ordinance of 1789.

The original Northwest Ordinance had been promulgated in 1787 under the Articles of Confederation. The primary effect of the ordinance was the creation of the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States, from lands south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River.

Following the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 the Congress reaffirmed the original law with some minor modifications and it was signed by George Washington on August 7, 1789. It established the precedent by which the federal government would be sovereign and expand westward across North America with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation.

The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the boundary between free and slave territory in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This division helped set the stage for national competition over admitting free and slave states, the basis of a critical question in American politics in the 19th century until the Civil War.

The Northwest Ordinance began to wholesale admission of new states beginning with Vermont which was admitted as a free state in 1791. The race to balance this out led to Kentucky being admitted as a slave state in 1792.

The following year two events took place that were to have a tremendous impact on the development of the United States with regards to slavery. The Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 based on Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution.

This law guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave and created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished. It also established that children born to fugitive slave mothers were also slaves and the property of the mother’s master, for all their lives.

In response to this section of the law, many Northern states enacted legislation to protect free black Americans (who could otherwise be abducted, then brought before court without the ability to produce a defense, and subsequently lawfully enslaved) as well as runaway slaves.

These laws came to be known as “personal liberty laws” and required slave owners and fugitive hunters to produce evidence that their captures were truly fugitive slaves, “just as southern states demanded the right to retrieve runaway slaves, northern states demanded the right to protect their free black residents from being kidnapped and sold into servitude in the south.” 

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 expanded the slave-catching industry with men acting as bounty hunters capturing and returning many slaves to their legal owners. It also made free blacks targets for these very same bounty hunters due to the high demand for slaves in the Deep South, even if they had “free” papers in their possession.

The case of Solomon Northup documented in the book 12 Years a Slave tells one such story. The historian Carol Wilson documented 300 such cases in Freedom at Risk (1994) and estimated there were likely thousands more.

The other major event that took place in 1793 was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, Jr. He patented it in 1794. Whitney’s cotton gin model was capable of cleaning 50 pounds of lint per day, making it possible for the profitable large-scale production of short-staple cotton in the South. The demand for slave labor increased with the increase in profitable cotton production.

By 1794 every state had banned the international slave trade. However, in 1803 South Carolina reversed their ban because of the need for more slaves partly due to the growth of cotton production.

The penalties for engaging in the slave trade were onerous. In 1794 Congress restricted the slave trade by a law that stated that no U.S. port or shipyard could be used to build or fit out a ship used in the slave trade. Ships sailing to Africa, whether flying the U.S. flag or a foreign flag, had to post cash bond that it would not engage in the slave trade in the next nine months.

Seamen who worked on a slave ship were fined $200 (more than a year’s pay), and half the penalty money would be paid to informers. The law was enforced, and was strengthened in 1800 by sharply raising the fines and giving all the reward to informers. A commercial ship that captured any slaver could take it to a U.S. port and receive the full value of the prize.

Many in the North hoped that slavery would wither away even after Tennessee was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1796. But slaveholders in the South saw slavery as the only way that their section could prosper. They would not go down without a fight.