FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1850
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a significant piece of American legislation related to the practise of slavery in the United States. In general, it strengthened the earlier provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which allowed slave owners in the United States the ability to capture escaped slaves. This was an issue at the time due to slaves escaping and travelling north towards potential freedom in Northern ‘free’ states and Canada. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850, which was a set of bills aimed at reducing tensions in the United States in relation to slavery. As such, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is often discussed alongside other important topics of the time, including: slavery in the United States, the American Abolitionist Movement, and the American Civil War.
WHY WAS THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1850 CREATED?
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was created to deal with the growing number of slaves who were escaping from slave plantations in the American South. Throughout the 19th century, the American Abolitionist Movement had grown in popularity and helped many slaves escape to freedom. The American Abolitionist Movement is the name for the advancements made in the United States towards ending the practise of slavery.
There was quite a divide between the Northern and Southern states in relation to their views on slavery and the Abolitionist Movement in the 19th century. More specifically, the Northern states supported the Abolitionist Movement and wanted to see slavery in the United States end, while the Southern states generally did not support the Abolitionist Movement.
Escaped slaves became a more prominent issue in the 19th century with the events of the Underground Railroad. In general, the Underground Railroad was a system under which slaves from the Southern United States could escape into the Northern United States and Canada, and is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until the events of the American Civil War in 1863. The Underground Railroad involved a series of routes, networks, and safe houses that escaped slaves could use as they travelled from the plantations in the south, to their freedom in the north.
While, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 attempted to deal with this issue, it ultimately failed. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 essentially allowed Southern slave owners the ability to capture escaped slaves from the Northern ‘free’ states and return them to work on the Southern plantations. Under the law, the slave owners were allowed to employ ‘agents’ to find and capture the slaves.
These ‘agents’ were essentially bounty hunters who travelled through the territory of the Northern states and found escaped slaves. Then the agent had to take the slave before a judge to prove their identity, before the slave could be returned. Throughout the 19th century, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 failed to stop the growing number of escaped slaves and the routes of the Underground Railroad.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, led to the growth of the Underground Railroad as abolitionists helped escaped slaves flee to their freedom. Furthermore, many of the escaped slaves began to flee further north to Canada. This was because the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed slaves to be returned to the Southern slave owners from the Northern states. As such, many of the escaped slaves preferred to flee even further north into Canada, where they could not be returned to slavery. In fact, estimates claim that anywhere from about 30,000 to as many as 100,000 slaves arrived in Canada during the timeframe of the Underground Railroad.
Finally, Southern slave owners who wanted to protect their businesses and property welcomed the passage of the earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. In fact, slaves were considered a central aspect of Southern plantations, as they carried out the vast majority of the labor. However, some slave owners argued that the law of 1793 did not do enough to protect their economic interests. This eventually resulted in the government taking more extensive measures with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
HOW DID THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1850 WORK?
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by the United States Congress on September 18th, 1850. Essentially, it built upon and strengthened the earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. As stated above, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed Southern slave owners the ability to capture escaped slaves from the Northern ‘free’ states and return them to work on the Southern plantations. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 set strict new guidelines for this previous act and created protections for the Southern slave owners.
First, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it such that anyone found helping an escaped slave could be punished with a fine and up to six months imprisonment. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 included punishments as well, but the 1850 law doubled the cost of the fine and now included possible prison time. Second, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it such that law enforcement officers were required to arrest anyone suspected of being an escaped slave. In fact, slave owners were only required to make a sworn written statement of ownership in order to prove that the escaped slave was their property. This meant that it was easier for slave owners to recapture their lost property and afforded fewer protections to the escaped slaves. For instance, if captured, escaped slaves could not request a trial for their situation and were instead returned to slavery based on the written statement by the slave owner. All of these conditions combined to create a much more dangerous situation for escaped slaves, and effectively reduced the number of slaves who escaped to the Northern ‘free’ states after 1850.
OUTCOMES OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1850
Southern slave owners who wanted to protect their businesses and property welcomed the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In fact, slaves were considered a central aspect of Southern plantations, as they carried out the vast majority of the labor. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 helped the economics of the Southern slave owners immensely, as it made escape for the slaves much harder. In fact, there is evidence that the price of slaves after 1850 increased by as much as 30% in the Southern states that bordered the Northern states. Historians attribute this increase in price to the protections given to the slave owners, which helped them protect their property (slaves).
While Southern slave owners supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it angered many people who lived in the Northern states. This is because the Northern states were less supportive of the practise of slavery and instead supported the American Abolitionist Movement. Furthermore, Northerners resented the idea that they were responsible for helping to capture escaped slaves and return them to plantations in the Southern states. For instance, some Northern states and prominent Northerners refused to follow the conditions outlined in the law. More specifically, Harriet Beecher Stowe famously wrote ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin’, which was published in 1852 in response to the conditions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Another example was the actions of the Harriet Tubman, who was a famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. Despite the new law, she continued helping slaves to escape, and began helping them escape further north to Canada. This was because, Canada was part of the British Empire and escaped slaves could not be returned from there. Furthermore, there were several cases in which ‘free’ African Americans were wrongfully taken and forced into slavery due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As such, some historians have argued that he passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 actually helped grow the response of Northerners to the goals of the abolitionist movement.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stayed in effect until June of 1864 when it was formally repealed. At the time, the United States was in the midst of the American Civil War, of which slavery was a major issue. Essentially, the Northern armies refused to continue to follow the rules of the Fugitive Slaves Act of 1850 and stopped forcing escaped slaves back to the south. This eventually forced the government to repeal the law. With that said, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 along with the other terms of the Compromise of 1850 are often considered an aspect for the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Therefore, some historians have argued that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is a cause of the Civil War.
FULL TEXT OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT OF 1850
A bill to amend the act entitled "An act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters."
SEC. 1. 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 authorised 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 offence against the United States, by arresting, imprisoning, or bailing the same under and by 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 affidavit, and to take depositions of witnesses in civil causes, which is now possessed by the circuit courts 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, and the superior courts of each organized territory of the United States, shall from time to time enlarge the number of 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; and shall grant certificates to such claimants, upon satisfactory proof being made, with authority to take 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 an 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 insure 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 anywhere 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 has heretofore or shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due, or his, her or their agent or attorney, duly authorised, by power of attorney, in writing, acknowledged and certified under the seal of some legal office 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 such service or labor was due to 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 from 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 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 said 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 aforesaid; or shall to rescue, such fugitive or labor, or from the custody of , his or her agent or attorney or other persons 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 to them 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 the custody from the want of sufficient proof as aforesaid, then such fees are to be paid in the whole by such complainant, his 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 or her agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where proof shall not, in the opinion of such certificate and deliver, inclusive of all services incident to such arrest and examination, to be paid, in either case, by the claimant, his or her agent of attorney. The person or persons authorized to execute the process to be issued by such commissioners for the arrest and detention of fugitives from service or laborer 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 such 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 attendant to the examination, keeping the fugitive in custody, and providing him with food and lodging during his detention, and until the final determination of such commissioner; 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 fugitive from service or labor be ordered to be delivered to such claimants by the final determination of such commissioners 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 the 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 such 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 of 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 constructed 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.
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