The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

"I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down... but I bite my lip and keep quiet." -Abraham Lincoln

The Act's Background: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

Passed into effect on September 18, 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act is historically one of the most controversial parts of The Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act's chief purpose was to track fugitive slaves who had runaway to northern states, capture them, and consequently return them to their proper southern owners. This law placed fugitive slave cases under the exclusive authority of the United States Federal Government. Highly trained and specialized government officials were authorized to issue warrants and arrests for the runaway slaves, however, many slaves were brutally beaten, whipped, or attacked by the government officials. Furthermore, any slave that had been captured by an official and claimed to be free (a common incident), was denied the right of a fair trial by jury. However, commissioners would be paid five dollars if an alleged fugitive was released and ten dollars if he or she was sent back with the claimant. Moreover, any attempt to obstruct enforcement of the law was subject to severe castigation. All in all, an estimated twenty-thousand black slaves moved to Canada, which was beyond the jurisdiction of the Fugitive Slave Act. Unfortunately, thousands more were not so lucky; the strict enforcement of the law ultimately proved to be a major blemish on America's history.


↑ The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a vital part of The Compromise of 1850; the map is illustrated above.

A Difficult Escape...


↑ Runaway slaves being gunned down by kidnappers and slave catchers. The survivors would be returned to slavery.


Please enjoy the following video segment featuring Dr. James O. Horton, Ph.D. He is speaking at George Washington University about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850:

For further information regarding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, feel free to consult the following websites:

I. Fugitive Slave Laws
II. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
III. Fugitive Slave Law

Different Perspectives:

The Southern Perspective:

Since the South was mostly populated by slaveholders and people in favor of slavery, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most appealing part of the Compromise of 1850. Actually, without the proposal of the new and rigid Fugitive Slave Act, the Compromise of 1850 probably would not have passed. Southerners approved of the Fugitive Slave Act because it required Northerners to return any slaves escaping to their region. If a Northerner did not return a fugitive back to his or her owner, the Northerner protecting the slave could face severe punishments such as a large fine or even jail time. The enforcement of this law also benefitted the slave owner. No African American could testify in court; only white men, usually the slaveholder or his representative, could present evidence to the commissioner. The African American had no way of defending himself because in the eyes of the federal court system he was not a citizen of the United States. Also, a commissioner received ten dollars for deciding the man or woman on trial was a slave and only five for deciding they were free. This is why so many free blacks were sent into slavery because of the Fugitive Slave Act. Between 1850 and 1860, 343 African Americans were put on trial and 332 were sent to the South to be slaves; only 11 were allowed to be free.

The Northern Perspective:

Because of the fact that most abolitionists lived in the Northern region of the United States, most people living in the North were appalled by the Fugitive Slave Act. Even those who were not abolitionists found it difficult to follow the new law. They felt this way because they saw free blacks being taken away to work on a cotton plantation; these were men who could read and write and had never been slaves their entire life. Northerners were also opposed to the method in which alleged slaves were tried. The courts were obviously corrupt; they wouldn’t even allow a man to defend himself. The people of the North strongly believed that this violated a man’s natural rights. Before the Fugitive Slave Act was passed abolitionists tried to pass bills that allowed the defendant to testify, but they were unsuccessful. Abolitionists even went to court to challenge the Fugitive Slave Act, but the court ruled it constitutional.

Perspectives Change:

Views on government seemed to switch when the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted. Southerners, who were typically strong states’ rights advocates, became vehement in their defense of the federal government’s right to have sole jurisdiction over fugitive slave cases. This allowed the federal government to override the local courts of the North which might rule in favor of the fugitive. Northerners, who were known for their want of a strong central government, suddenly supported states’ rights. Some northern states even nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, or passed laws that nullified its effect. Historian Eric Foner said that this switch “shows that the South didn’t believe in states’ rights. It believed in slavery. States’ rights was a defense of slavery.”

You Were Always Wanted...


A typical poster displayed in various regions of the United States. A tempting reward was given in exchange for the return of the runaway slaves.

↓ A poster in Boston, Massachusetts warning black men and women to refrain from speaking to police officers and watchmen; they could very well be slave catchers.


How Crucial was the Fugitive Slave Act in starting the Civil War?

On a scale from 1 to 5, regarding an event's importance in bringing about the Civil War, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a 5. The Fugitive Slave Act drew more attention to the inhumanity of slavery and caused increased tension between the North and the South. Northern whites resented having to be deputized, or forced into hunting slaves, against their will by the officials enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act was also significant because it helped to create legendary abolitionists and anti-slavery orators such as Frederick Douglas and Henry Highland Garnet. These were real people who had experienced slavery firsthand and could describe it more accurately than any white abolitionist could. Perhaps most importantly, the Fugitive Slave Act allowed Northerners who had always thought slavery was so far away to see it personally for the first time. They saw African American men, women, and children, both free and fugitive, dragged away in chains with no hope of help from the law. This display of cruelty convinced more people of the evils of slavery and made them opposed to the Southern institution of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. This increased support for the abolitionists' cause would infuriate the South.

These resentments would eventually come to head at Fort Sumter in Charleston's Bay, April 12, 1861.


"Eric Foner on the Fugitive Slave Act." Modern Voices. <>.

"Fugitive Slave Law of 1850", Ohio History Central, July 1, 2005, <

Newman, John J. and Schmalbach, John M. United States History: Preparing for the Adavanced Placement Examination. New York: Amsco School Publications, Inc., 1998.

"The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act ." PBS Resource Room. 1 Feb. 2007. 9 May. 2009. <>.

"The Slavery Compromise of 1850: The Fugitive Slave Act." The American Civil War. 4 Mar. 2007. 9 May. 2009. <>.