Fugitive Slave Act1850
The Fugitive Slave Act was part of the group of laws referred to as the “Compromise of 1850.” In this compromise, the antislavery advocates gained the admission of California as a free state, and the prohibition of slave-trading in the District of Columbia. The slavery party received concessions with regard to slaveholding in Texas and the passage of this law. Passage of this law was so hated by abolitionists, however, that its existence played a role in the end of slavery a little more than a dozen years later. This law also spurred the continued operation of the fabled Undergound Railroad, a network of over 3,000 homes and other “stations” that helped escaping slaves travel from the southern slave-holding states to the northern states and Canada.
BE IT enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the persons who have been, or may hereafter be, appointed commissioners, in virtue of any act of Congress, by the Circuit Courts of the United States, and Who, in consequence of such appointment, are authorized to exercise the powers that any justice of the peace, or other magistrate of any of the United States, may exercise in respect to offenders for any crime or offense against the United States, by arresting, imprisoning, or bailing the same under and by the virtue of the thirty-third section of the act of the twenty-fourth of September seventeen hundred and eighty-nine, entitled “An Act to establish the judicial courts of the United States” shall be, and are hereby, authorized and required to exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.
SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the Superior Court of each organized Territory of the United States shall have the same power to appoint commissioners to take acknowledgments of bail and affidavits, and to take depositions of witnesses in civil causes, which is now possessed by the Circuit Court of the United States; and all commissioners who shall hereafter be appointed for such purposes by the Superior Court of any organized Territory of the United States, shall possess all the powers, and exercise all the duties, conferred by law upon the commissioners appointed by the Circuit Courts of the United States for similar purposes, and shall moreover exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.
SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the Circuit Courts of the United States shall from time to time enlarge the number of the commissioners, with a view to afford reasonable facilities to reclaim fugitives from labor, and to the prompt discharge of the duties imposed by this act.
SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That the commissioners above named shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the judges of the Circuit and District Courts of the United States, in their respective circuits and districts within the several States, and the judges of the Superior Courts of the Territories, severally and collectively, in term-time and vacation; shall grant certificates to such claimants, upon satisfactory proof being made, with authority to ake and remove such fugitives from service or labor, under the restrictions herein contained, to the State or Territory from which such persons may have escaped or fled.
SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars, to the use of such claimant, on the motion of such claimant, by the Circuit or District Court for the district of such marshal; and after arrest of such fugitive, by such marshal or his deputy, or whilst at any time in his custody under the provisions of this act, should such fugitive escape, whether with or without the assent of such marshal or his deputy, such marshal shall be liable, on his official bond, to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant, for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive in the State, Territory, or District whence he escaped: and the better to enable the said commissioners, when thus appointed, to execute their duties faithfully and efficiently, in conformity with the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and of this act, they are hereby authorized and empowered, within their counties respectively, to appoint, in writing under their hands, any one or more suitable persons, from time to time, to execute all such warrants and other process as may be issued by them in the lawful performance of their respective duties; with authority to such commissioners, or the persons to be appointed by them, to execute process as aforesaid, to summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus of the proper county, when necessary to ensure a faithful observance of the clause of the Constitution referred to, in conformity with the provisions of this act; and all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required, as aforesaid, for that purpose; and said warrants shall run, and be executed by said officers, any where in the State within which they are issued.
SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That when a person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the United States, ha: heretofore or shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the person or persons to whom such service 01 labor may be due, or his, her, or their agent or attorney, duly authorized, by power of attorney, in writing, acknowledged and certified under the seal of some legal officer or court of the State or Territory in which the same may be executed, may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person, either by procuring a warrant from some one of the courts, judges, or commissioners aforesaid, of the proper circuit, district, or county, for the apprehension of such fugitive from service or labor, or by seizing and arresting such fugitive, where the same can be done without process, and by taking, or causing such person to be taken, forthwith before such court, judge, or commissioner, whose duty it shall be to hear and determine the case of such claimant in a summary manner; and upon satisfactory proof being made, by deposition or affidavit, in writing, to be taken and certified by such court, judge, or commissioner, or by other satisfactory testimony, duly taken and certified by some court, magistrate, justice of the peace, or other legal officer authorized to administer an oath and take depositions under the laws of the State or Territory from which such person owing service or labor may have escaped, with a certificate of such magistracy or other authority, as aforesaid, with the seal of the proper court or officer thereto attached, which seal shall be sufficient to establish the competency of the proof, and with proof, also by affidavit, of the identity of the person whose service or labor is claimed to be due as aforesaid, that the person so arrested does in fact owe service or labor to the person or persons claiming him or her, in the State or Territory from which such fugitive may have escaped as aforesaid, and that said person escaped, to make out and deliver to such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, a certificate setting forth the substantial facts as to the service or labor due from such fugitive to the claimant, and of his or her escape from the State or Territory in which he or she was arrested, with authority to such claimant, or his or her agent or attorney, to use such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary, under the circumstances of the case, to take and remove such fugitive person back to the State or Territory whence he or she may have escaped as aforesaid. In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.
SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the district in which such offence may have been committed, or before the proper court of criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any one of the organized Territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to be recovered by action of debt, in any of the District or Territorial Courts aforesaid, within whose jurisdiction the said offence may have been committed.
Sec. 8. And be it further enacted, That the marshals, their deputies, and the clerks of the said District and Territorial Courts, shall be paid, for their services, the like fees as may be allowed for similar services in other cases; and where such services are rendered exclusively in the arrest, custody, and delivery of the fugitive to the claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or where such supposed fugitive may be discharged out of custody for the want of sufficient proof as aforesaid, then such fees are to be paid in whole by such claimant, his or her agent or attorney; and in all cases where the proceedings are before a commissioner, he shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where the proof shall not, in the opinion of such commissioner, warrant such certificate and delivery, inclusive of all services incident to such arrest and examination, to be paid, in either case, by the claimant, his or her agent or attorney. The person or persons authorized to execute the process to be issued by such commissioner for the arrest and detention of fugitives from service or labor as aforesaid, shall also be entitled to a fee of five dollars each for each person he or they may arrest, and take before any commissioner as aforesaid, at the instance and request of such claimant, with such other fees as may be deemed reasonable by such commissioner for such other additional services as may be necessarily performed by him or them; such as attending at the examination, keeping the fugitive in custody, and providing him with food and lodging during his detention, and until the final determination of such commissioners; and, in general, for performing such other duties as may be required by such claimant, his or her attorney or agent, or commissioner in the premises, such fees to be made up in conformity with the fees usually charged by the officers of the courts of justice within the proper district or county, as near as may be practicable, and paid by such claimants, their agents or attorneys, whether such supposed fugitives from service or labor be ordered to be delivered to such claimant by the final determination of such commissioner or not.
SEC. 9. And be it further enacted, That, upon affidavit made by the claimant of such fugitive, his agent or attorney, after such certificate has been issued, that he has reason to apprehend that such fugitive will be rescued by force from his or their possession before he can be taken beyond the limits of the State in which the arrest is made, it shall be the duty of the officer making the arrest to retain such fugitive in his custody, and to remove him to the State whence he fled, and there to deliver him to said claimant, his agent, or attorney. And to this end, the officer aforesaid is hereby authorized and required to employ so many persons as he may deem necessary to overcome such force, and to retain them in his service so long as circumstances may require. The said officer and his assistants, while so employed, to receive the same compensation, and to be allowed the same expenses, as are now allowed by law for transportation of criminals, to be certified by the judge of the district within which the arrest is made, and paid out of the treasury of the United States.
SEC. 10. And be it further enacted, That when any person held to service or labor in any State or Territory, or in the District of Columbia, shall escape therefrom, the party to whom such service or labor shall be due, his, her, or their agent or attorney, may apply to any court of record therein, or judge thereof in vacation, and make satisfactory proof to such court, or judge in vacation, of the escape aforesaid, and that the person escaping owed service or labor to such party. Whereupon the court shall cause a record to be made of the matters so proved, and also a general description of the person so escaping, with such convenient certainty as may be; and a transcript of such record, authenticated by the attestation of the clerk and of the seal of the said court, being produced in any other State, Territory, or district in which the person so escaping may be found, and being exhibited to any judge, commissioner, or other officer authorized by the law of the United States to cause persons escaping from service or labor to be delivered up, shall be held and taken to be full and conclusive evidence of the fact of escape, and that the service or labor of the person escaping is due to the party in such record mentioned. And upon the production by the said party of other and further evidence if necessary, either oral or by affidavit, in addition to what is contained in the said record of the identity of the person escaping, he or she shall be delivered up to the claimant. And the said court, commissioner, judge, or other person authorized by this act to grant certificates to claimants or fugitives, shall, upon the production of the record and other evidences aforesaid, grant to such claimant a certificate of his right to take any such person identified and proved to be owing service or labor as aforesaid, which certificate shall authorize such claimant to seize or arrest and transport such person to the State or Territory from which he escaped: Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be construed as requiring the production of a transcript of such record as evidence as aforesaid. But in its absence the claim shall be heard and determined upon other satisfactory proofs, competent in law.
Approved, September 18, 1850
Nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act
Before the Civil War, northern states defied the federal government by refusing to enforce one of the most repugnant laws ever enacted in U.S. history.
Although the concepts of states’ rights and nullification are historically associated with the South, they were employed by northern states to resist the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Under this law, stringent measures were imposed to catch runaway slaves. These included:
- Penalizing federal officials that did not enforce the law
- Rewarding federal officials that did enforce law
- Requiring free citizens to help capture runaway slaves
- Fining or imprisoning citizens helping runaways to escape
- Prohibiting runaways from testifying on their own behalf in court
- Denying jury trials to runaways
Special federal commissions, not courts, worked with U.S. marshals to handle runaway cases. Commissioners and marshals who failed to hold captured runaways could be sued, thus compelling them to enforce the law. They received $10 for every runaway delivered to a claimant, but only $5 for cases in which the runaway was freed. This provided a financial incentive to send even free black men and women into slavery.
The law not only jeopardized the liberty of every black citizen, but it also infringed on the freedom of white citizens by forcing them to hunt for runaways against their will.
J.W. Loguen, a runaway slave who became a college-educated minister, denounced the Fugitive Slave Act: “The time has come to change the tones of submission into tones of defiance… I don’t respect this law—I don’t fear it—I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it… I will not live a slave, and if force is employed to re-enslave me, I shall make preparations to meet the crisis as becomes a man…”
Northerners who had previously been ambiguous about slavery were now compelled to witness the institution firsthand. Consequently, former moderates quickly became enraged by the “Man-Stealing Law” and refused to send their fellow men and women into servitude. Resistance to the law was so strong that slaveholders coming north to find runaways were sometimes mobbed or jailed for attempted kidnapping.
Abolitionists used this new resistance by encouraging more slaves to escape via the Underground Railroad, reasoning that if enough slaves escaped to the North, and if enough northerners refused to help catch them, then slavery would eventually die. Thus, the liberties of runaways were protected by abolitionists and noncompliant northerners who were defending their own freedom against an overreaching government.
Defiance and Nullification
In the spirit of southern statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun, northerners worked to prevent the Fugitive Slave Act from being enforced in their states. This “nullification” of federal law was first introduced by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, in which Jefferson and James Madison declared that states had the right to nullify federal laws they deemed unconstitutional.
State and local governments openly defied the law:
- The legislatures of Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Wisconsin passed “personal liberty laws” making it nearly impossible to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in those states.
- The Wisconsin Supreme Court declared that the Tenth Amendment protected states from repugnant federal laws like the Fugitive Slave Act, specifically citing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 as the basis for its opinion.
- The Chicago City Council called northern congressmen who supported the act “traitors” like “Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot.”
- When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not free federal prisoners convicted of helping runaways, the Wisconsin legislature called “this assumption of jurisdiction by the federal judiciary… an act of undelegated power, void, and of no force…”
In addition to local governments, the people themselves took matters into their own hands:
- In Syracuse, New York, a jury effectively nullified the law by acquitting all but one of 26 people who had been arrested for freeing William “Jerry” Henry; he ultimately escaped to Canada.
- When Joshua Glover was captured by U.S. marshals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the sheriff supported local opinion by freeing Glover and jailing the marshals; Glover also escaped to Canada.
- In Pennsylvania, a mob of free blacks killed a slaveholder attempting to capture a runaway.
- Military force was needed to disperse a mass meeting after a black man was apprehended in Detroit.
- Throughout Ohio, town meetings branded any northern official who helped enforce the law “an enemy of the human race.”
Other cities and states refused to help enforce the law simply because it was too expensive. Returning one runaway to the South cost the city of Boston $5,000. Boston officials never enforced the law again. All of these acts of defiance and nullification were ironically adopted from principles first introduced and later invoked by southerners.
The Law’s Legacy
The unintended consequences of legislation has rarely been greater than with the Fugitive Slave Act. The law enabled northerners to defy federal authority on moral grounds, and people who broke the law by refusing to help catch runaways were hailed as heroes. Thus, this law actually increased the number of abolitionists and further divided North and South.
The law also enabled the federal government to save slavery from extinction when the institution was dying throughout the rest of the world. Had the law not been passed, more slaves would have escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad, it would have been too expensive to capture runaways, and the economic realities would have eventually destroyed slavery.
Moreover, northerners’ use of defiance and nullification helped embolden the South to secede from the Union a decade later. Americans recognized that they were the ultimate defenders of their own liberty, and as such many believed that the next logical step after defiance and nullification was secession. The Fugitive Slave Act hastened that secession and helped bring on the most terrible war in American history.