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Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slaveholding interests and Northern Free-Soilers and abolitionists.

A major cause of conflict between the Southern slave states and the Northern free states was the lack of assistance given by northerners to southern slave-owners and their agents seeking to recapture escaped slaves. (See Underground railroad.) In 1842 the Supreme Court had ruled that states did not have to proffer aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves, and in some areas locals had actively fought attempts to seize black fugitives and return them to the South. Some northern states passed personal-liberty laws mandating a jury trial before alleged slaves could be moved; others forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the process of arrest or return.

In response, the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 made any federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere in the United States 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, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was to be subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee for their work.

In fact the Fugitive Slave Law brought the issue home to anti-slavery citizens in the North, since it made them and their institutions responsible for enforcing slavery. Even moderate abolitionists were now faced with the immediate choice of defying what they believed an unjust law or breaking with their own conscience and belief.

Many Methodists were highly active in the abolition movement, though the Methodist Episcopal Church was officially hesitant to speak out for fear of losing the southern churches. Their reluctance stimulated at least two splinter groups of Methodism, the Wesleyan Methodist Church (America) in 1843 and the Free Methodists in 1860. These, along with some like-minded Quakers, maintained many of the "stations" of the Underground Railroad.

The Fugitive Slave Act brought a defiant response from the "station masters." Rev. Luther Lee , pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, New York wrote in 1855:

I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the authorities wanted any thing of me my residence was at 39 Onondaga Street. I would admit that and they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough on Onondaga County to level it to the ground before the next morning.

Other participants in the resistance movement, such as Harriet Tubman simply treated the law as just another complication in their activities. The most important reaction was making the neighbouring country of Canada the main destination of choice for runaway slaves.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, General Benjamin Butler justified refusing to return runaway slaves in accordance to this law because as the Union and the Confederacy were at war, the slaves could be confiscated and set free as contraband of war.

As the war progressed, the Fugitive Slave Law declined in usage until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment made it irrelevant.

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 05:36:44
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04