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.



Solomon Northup: 12 Years a Slave

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series The Voice of the Slaves

Solomon NorthupThe new movie sensation, 12 Years a Slave, is based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup. The original book was published in 1853 is subtitled Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.

It tells the story of free African-American who is duped into leaving New York for Washington. On the way he is drugged, bound and kidnapped into slavery. He is transported to New Orleans where he was sold into slavery.

Solomon Northup was born free in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1808. His father Mintus was born a slave but was manumitted by his owner Capt. Henry Northup and he took his former owner’s name. He married a woman that Solomon described as a quadroon meaning that she was three-quarters white. Mintus was a successful farmer who was able to meet the property qualifications to vote. Solomon was one of two sons that the couple had.

Like his father Solomon who was partly white, married Anne Hampton in 1829. Anne, like Solomon’s mother, was of mixed race, with African, European, and Native American ancestry. They had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. They owned their farm in Hebron in Washington County, and worked at various jobs to provide a prosperous life for their children. Northup played the violin well, which is what led to his kidnapping.

In 1834 the Northups had sold their farm and moved into Saratoga Springs where the couple worked a variety of jobs. Solomon played the violin at a number of local hotels but he found the work to be seasonal. He also worked as a carpenter. His wife worked as a cook at a number of restaurants and hotels in the area.

Solomon’s 12 year ordeal as a slave began in 1841 when he was about 33 years of age. He met two men who introduced themselves as fellow performers. Telling him that they needed a fiddler they invited him to journey with them to New York to perform. His wife was working away from their town so Solomon never notified her thinking that he would return in a couple of days.

After the New York performances, the two persuaded Solomon to come with them to Washington for several more performances offering him a generous wage and the cost of his return trip home. They stopped so that he could get a copy of his “free papers,” to prove his status as a free man. After all, they were going to the capital where slavery was still legal. Due to the high demand for slaves in the Deep South, free blacks were at risk of kidnapping. Kidnappers used a variety of means, from forced abduction to deceit.

The two white men sold Northup to a slave trader in Washington, claiming that he was a fugitive. When Northup claimed that he was a free man the slave trader and his turnkey severely beat him. Claiming that he was a runaway slave from Georgia, the Washington slave trader shipped him to his partner at the New Orleans slave market. During the voyage Solomon caught smallpox but survived.

He convinced a sailor to send a letter to Henry B. Northup, a member of the family that had owned his father, explaining his plight. However, despite legal mechanisms that were meant to protect New York African-Americans, Northup couldn’t him without knowing where he was.

At the New Orleans slave market, Northup (who had been renamed Platt) was sold to William Ford, a planter on Bayou Boeuf of the Red River in Louisiana. Northup characterized Ford, a Baptist preacher, as a good man, considerate of his slaves. At Ford’s place, Northup proposed making log rafts to move lumber down the river, to get logs to market less expensively. His project was a success. He also built textile looms, copying from one nearby, so that Ford could set up mills on the creek. With Ford, Northup found his efforts appreciated.

However in the winter of 1842 the planter had financial difficulties, and was forced to sell 18 slaves to settle his debts. Solomon’s next owner was a man named  John M. Tibaut (the name is given as Tibeats in Northup’s book), a carpenter who had been working for Ford on the mills, as well as at a weaving-house and corn mill on Ford’s Bayou Boeuf plantation.

Tibaut was a cruel man who was soon at odds with Solomon. After running away and returning to Ford, the preacher convinced Tibaut to hire Solomon out to a plantation about 38 miles away, thereby limiting their conflict. Northup and other slaves do the heavy work of clearing cane, trees and undergrowth in order to develop cotton fields for cultivation. With the work unfinished, after about five weeks Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps.

While held by Epps, in 1852 Northup secretly befriended Samuel Bass, an itinerant Canadian carpenter working for Epps. Bass wrote to Northup’s family with details of his location at Bayou Boeuf in hopes of gaining his rescue. After the intervention of the New York governor and several Louisiana politicians, Solomon Northup was returned to freedom on January 4, 1853. Epps cursed the man who enabled Solomon’s freedom. Northup later wrote, “He thought of nothing but his loss, and cursed me for having been born free.”

A New York court case ensued but after four years it was dropped because there was a question if the crime of kidnapping had been committed in New York or Washington, out of the jurisdiction of the New York courts.

Solomon wrote a book about his experience in three months with the assistance of David Wilson, a local writer. Within three years it had sold 30,000 copies. In his memoir Solomon provided details of slave markets in Washington, DC, as well as describing at length cotton cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana.

Solomon Northup became an active abolitionist and gave dozens of lectures throughout the Northeast on his experiences as a slave in order to support the abolitionist cause. He had returned to his wife and family but in 1857 he disappeared.  In 1909, John Northup, Henry’s nephew, wrote: “The last I heard of him, Sol was lecturing in Boston to help sell his book. All at once, he disappeared. We believe that he was kidnapped and taken away or killed.”

The contemporary historians Clifford Brown and Carol Wilson believe it is likely that he died of natural causes, his kidnapping being unlikely because he was too old to be of interest to slave catchers, but his 1857 disappearance remains unexplained.