The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, although in effect less than two decades, was one of the nation’s most controversial federal laws. Designed to provide southern slaveholders with greater assistance in the return of runaway slaves, it angered northern whites and blacks, divided communities, and yet still failed to assuage slaveholders’ concerns. Designed to calm sectional tensions as part of the Compromise of 1850, the law propelled the nation closer to war. Both the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 affirmed the rights of slaveholders to claim enslaved people who escaped into free states or territories. But enslaved people continued to seek freedom, and over time the number of those willing to aid them grew, eventually developing into the loosely organized network known as the Underground Railroad. Slaveholders, especially in the Upper South, annually lost an untold number of slaves to escape. Not all freedom-seekers were successful, but the costs were great nonetheless. To slaveholders, every escaped slave who made it North represented a loss of hundreds of dollars, and perhaps more importantly, spurred others to follow in his or her footsteps. Often associated with states’ rights ideology, white southerners demanded and eventually got what some scholars have called the greatest exercise of federal power before the Civil War. The enhanced federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 expanded on the earlier law in several important ways. It created a new position of commissioner who was appointed, not elected, and was paid ten dollars each time he sent an accused fugitive into slavery, only five dollars if he found the claim to be insufficient and ordered the accused released. The act also strengthened the penalties for helping fugitives escape or interfering with rendition; it explicitly stripped all rights from the accused; and stated that bystanders could be called upon to assist in slave recapture. Response to the law varied. Enslaved people continued to escape bondage. Fugitives living in the North and even free blacks felt threatened and organized for self-defense; thousands left for Canada. Abolitionists, black and white, protested in writing and speeches; some engaged in bold rescues of individuals claimed as fugitives. Many white northerners abided by the law, although for others the idea of being turned into de facto slave catchers pushed them toward opposition. Rather than settle the issue of fugitive slaves, the Law served to divide the nation further.
Several works look at the Fugitive Slave Law from a broad perspective, generally including the political background of its creation, ramifications of the law’s implementation, and the success level of enforcement. Gara 1964 examines the Fugitive Slave Act in political context and finds that as a compromise the act was a failure. Campbell 1970 was the first work to systematically analyze the law’s enforcement and has remained a standard in the field. Harrold 2010 is an important recent work that has helped reorient historians away from a traditional northern free/southern slave geography toward a focus on the borderlands where issues of slavery and race were complex and shifting. Churchill 2014 adapts the borderlands concept using an extensive database of fugitive slave rescues. Blackett 2018 provides the best new overview of the topic, what will undoubtedly become the standard work on the subject. He argues that by running away, freedom seekers challenged not only the law, but the entire system of slavery, and helped bring the nation to a reckoning.
Blackett, R. J. M. The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
One section covers the law’s passage, first year of operation, and its impact on the abolitionist and free black communities, plus the resurgence of the colonization movement. Seven chapters then examine reaction to the law in different areas of the country. Blackett concludes that the law was inadequate, as more enslaved people escaped than were apprehended and returned.
Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Law, 1850–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
Analyzing the 332 cases reviewed by federal commissioners, Campbell concludes that the Fugitive Slave Act, contrary to southern complaints, was enforced to a great extent, and resulted in a majority of those accused of being returned to slavery. His work has remained the standard on enforcement of the law for decades.
Churchill, Robert H. “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North.” Ohio Valley History 14 (Summer 2014): 51–75.
A comprehensive examination of fugitive slave rescues, creating a database of 154 cases of which nearly 80 percent were successful. Churchill divides the cases into three regions—free soil (Upper North, where fugitive rendition was systematically challenged), borderland (northern counties adjacent to slave states which saw some rescues but much support for the law), and contested territory (the area in between where opposition to the law grew over time).
Gara, Larry. “The Fugitive Slave Law: A Double Paradox.” Civil War History 10.3 (September 1964): 229–240.
As part of a political compromise designed to keep the Union together, Gara states, the law failed miserably. He also argues another paradox: that southern whites, generally associated with states’ rights ideology, were willing to call on the power of federal authority when it suited their needs, in this case to restore their human property.
Harrold, Stanley. Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Focuses on the states of the Lower North and Upper South as a borderland where issues of race and slavery were constantly debated; this was the real proving ground for the Fugitive Slave Act. Harrold concludes that while the act challenged fugitives and their allies, it did not stop escapes; rather, the number increased, as did defiance of the act.
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