• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass confronts the Fugitive Slave Act

In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. The passage of this law rocked the nation and threw the lives of all blacks - free or fugitive - living in the northern United States into turmoil. No longer were they safe in their own beds at night. It also weighed heavily on the minds of federal marshals.

A number of issues came together to compose the Fugitive Slave Act. Among them were:

In the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., slavery was not only allowed, the city was also home to the largest slave market in North America.

The US had recently acquired a large quantity of new territory due to the war with Mexico. Questions were raised as to whether slave states should be created in the territory, the new states should be declared free, or the inhabitants of the new states should be the ones to decide.

Since 1849, the territory known as California had experienced explosive growth as a result of the gold rush. California now petitioned Congress to join the nation as a free state. The Missouri Compromise had previously created a balance of slave and free states. With California’s admission as a free state threatening to tip the scales, concerns were the request would most certainly not win approval.

Texas was in the midst of a land dispute. The state felt its territory extended all the way to Santa Fe.

On January 29, 1850, Senator Henry Clay (Whig-KY) submitted a compromise. During a period of eight months, the compromise was debated by Senators Clay, John C. Calhoun (D-SC), and Daniel Webster (Whig-MA). Stephen Douglas (D-IL) assisted these senators with a series of bills that created the compromise, then ushered them through Congress. In the end, the compromise included these actions:

  • In return for $10 million, Texas would relinquish the land involved in its dispute. This money would be used to pay off Texas's debt to Mexico.

  • The states of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico would be admitted to the union as free states.

  • Slave trade was abolished in Washington, D.C.; however, slavery itself was still permitted.

  • The number of new free states added to the union destroyed the prior balance between free and slave.

To appease the slave-state politicians and win their agreement, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. This act was, without a doubt, the most controversial of the bills that created the Compromise of 1850.

Law officials were now required to help in the capture of runaways and citizens were forced to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Anyone aiding a fugitive to escape would have a heavy penalty assessed against themselves - $1,000 fine, six months in jail and the possibility of being charged with treason. To help encourage the efforts of the law officials, any officer who captured a fugitive slave was entitled to a fee. Thus, a number of officers were now encouraged to kidnap the free Negroes, then sell them to slave owners.

Once the fugitive was apprehended, he was required to appear before a federal court or commissioner. A jury trial was denied the runaway and any testimony he offered could not be admitted into evidence. On the other hand, the written testimony of the individual professing to be the fugitive’s master was admissible, even if the master was not present.

Given the heavy-handed injustice, the law laid upon the fugitives, many individuals in the North who had previously paid little attention to the situation suddenly began to speak up. Numerous personal liberty laws were passed by many Northern states to contradict the legislation of 1850 - Vermont (1850), Connecticut (1854), Rhode Island (1854), Massachusetts (1855), Michigan (1855), Maine (1855 and 1857), Kansas (1858) and Wisconsin (1858). In 1854, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin went so far as to declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional.

For those slaves who had escaped the hell of slavery in the South and made a life for themselves in the North, the Fugitive Slave Act was a living nightmare. Many now packed up and headed for Canada due to the fact the power of the law allowed slave hunters to kidnap the children of free Negroes and whisk them south where they too became slaves.

Over the course of the next 10 years, an estimated 20,000 Negroes moved across the northern border. Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive who now made her home in New York, said the law’s passage was “the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population.” Frederick Douglass denounced a government that willingly made decisions like this and began to travel far and wide, delivering fiery speeches in the defense of freedom.

Henry Clay now turned his full attention to finding a solution to this law. Clay had already been engaged in one fiery debate about slavery in 1820 with his Missouri Compromise. Now thirty years later, he was back at it. In this case, the goal was to keep the nation together.

The Fugitive Slave Act was fiercely attacked by abolitionists, many of who would mob federal officials in an effort to release fugitives. Boston became a center of resistance. In one example, a fugitive by the name of Shadrach Minkins was being readied to return to his master when a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, Lewis Hayden, accompanied by an Underground Railroad conductor, forced their way into a Boston courtroom. These individuals succeeded in releasing Hayden and helped aid his efforts to reach Canada. On another occasion, a group of “good citizens” stormed the federal courthouse to secure the release of Anthony Burns, a runaway slave from Virginia. 1,100 soldiers were ordered to guard him as he was marched aboard the ship to be returned to his master.

Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier and Wendell Phillips immediately took up the gauntlet to combat this law. They were joined by numerous moderate anti-slavery leaders such as Arthur Tappan, who stated he would willingly disobey this law and now threw his support behind the Underground Railroad.

Ordinary citizens began active participation with the abolitionists raising funds to help combat this injustice. Between the years of 1850–1860, the Underground Railroad was extremely busy as the country’s citizens began to take a strong stance against the institution of slavery, even those who had previously been ambivalent regarding the topic.

On August 21-22, 1850, the First Congregational Church of Cazenovia, New York played host to the Fugitive Slave Act Convention. Since the early 1830s, many leaders of the abolitionist movement had either been born or raised in Cazenovia. Others had at one time called Cazenovia home during some period of their lives. The gathering was one of the most important and largest of the abolitionist meetings.

Numbered among the attendees was Frederick Douglass, along with a quantity of other escaped slaves. Taking to the podium, Douglass helped to spread the call to end slavery. What distinguished Cazenovia’s convention from other anti-slavery conventions of the past was the fiery message contained within A Letter to the American Slaves, from those who have fled from American Slavery.

Though the letter and convention did little to actually free the slaves themselves, it served to rally the abolitionists.

When the law was enacted on September 18, 1850, the letter from the fugitive slaves was read in Congress. Congressional members from the South were enraged when they heard it.

Over the next 14 years, numerous cases arose under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The legislation probably had as much to do with bringing about the Civil War as did the controversy over slavery in the territories. On June 28, 1864, the Act of 1850 was finally repealed.

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