The Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, caused controversy and contributed
to Northern fears of a "slave power conspiracy."
Explain the economic and political context of the Fugitive Slave Act and how Northerners responded to it
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a reinforcement of a previous act of the
same name passed by Congress in 1793 to provide for the return of slaves who
had attempted to escape from their owners to freedom.
The new act made any federal marshal or other official who did not
arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000.
In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to a six-month imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a federal marshal to
capture an escaped slave. Because suspected slaves were not permitted trial and could
not defend themselves against accusations, many free African Americans were forced into slavery.
Laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another state or territory.
Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850
between Southern slave interests and the Northern Free Soil movement. The
Fugitive Slave Act was one of the most controversial provisions of the 1850
compromise and heightened Northern fears of a "slave power conspiracy."
1843, several hundred slaves a year were successfully escaping to the North,
making slavery untenable in the border states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
required the return of runaway slaves by requiring authorities in free states
to return fugitive slaves to their masters. However, many Northern states found
ways to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Act. Some jurisdictions passed “personal
liberty laws," which mandated a jury trial before alleged fugitive slaves could
be moved. 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 federal law.
The Missouri Supreme Court held that voluntary transportation of slaves
into free states, with the intent of their residing there permanently or definitely,
automatically made them free, whereas the Fugitive Slave Act dealt with slaves
who went into free states without their master's consent. Furthermore, 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, which greatly weakened the law
of 1793. These and other Northern attempts to sidestep the 1793 legislation
agitated the South, which sought stronger federal provisions for returning
In response to the weakening of the original fugitive slave law, the
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made any federal marshal or other official who did
not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. In addition, officers
who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their
work, and any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was
subject to a six-month imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Law-enforcement
officials everywhere now had greater incentive to arrest anyone suspected of
being a runaway slave, and sympathizers had much more to risk in aiding those
seeking freedom. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a federal
marshal to claim that a slave had run away. The suspected runaway could not ask for
a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. As a result, many free black
people were accused of running away and were forced into slavery.
Effects of the Fugitive Slave Act
Fugitive Slave Act was met with violent protest in the North. This anger
stemmed less from the fact that slavery existed than from Northern fury at
being coerced into protecting the institution of Southern slavery. Moderate
abolitionists were faced with the choice of defying what they believed to be an
unjust law or breaking with their own consciences and beliefs, and many became
radical antislavery proponents as a result. Many Northerners viewed the 1850
Fugitive Slave Act as evidence that the South was conspiring to spread slavery
through federal coercion and force regardless of the will of Northern voters.
In many Northern towns, slave catchers were attacked, and mobs set free captured
fugitives. Two prominent instances in which abolitionists set free captured fugitives include John McHenry in Syracuse, New York, in 1851, and Shadrach Minkins
in Boston of the same year.