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Fugitive Slave Acts

Last Updated: 2006

The Fugitive Slave Acts were passed in 1793 and 1850 as attempts to legislate the return of runaway slaves to southern slave owners. The first Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress in 1793. The law did not grow from southern anxiety over slaves escaping to the North; rather, it was born from the desire to clarify the rights of the fugitive slave and to determine the judicial process for the return of slaves. Southerners were disappointed with the 1793 law because it set up a system in which the slave owner petitioned the district judge of the state in which the slave was found for the slave’s return. However, the law did little to protect the free black citizens of the North. As abolitionist sentiments grew in the North, the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law was much opposed by judges and citizens, which led to demands by southern congressmen and southern slaveholders for a stronger law. These Southerners argued that free states ignored their legislative duty to the slave states.

After many attempts to construct a bill with stricter requirements for the return of fugitive slaves, a new Senate bill was introduced in January 1850. The new bill allowed for a slave owner to approach any state official ranging from judge to postmaster to reclaim his slave with sufficient proof, and a federal marshal was able to issue the arrest warrant and could arrest the slave in the same manner as an owner. The new bill applied a $1,000 fine for those who harbored or assisted the fugitive slave. The bill elicited mixed responses from both Southerners and Northerners. Southerners believed that the bill did not extend their “property” rights enough, and Northerners protested that the bill did not provide protection for “free” African Americans residing in the North. In February, Henry Clay, a statesman from Kentucky, proposed the Compromise of 1850, which included this fugitive slave bill. The compromise passed with the new bill, which gave federal authorities power to reclaim slaves as well as provided slave owners with stronger legal power to have their slaves returned. This law, signed by President Millard Fillmore, was the most stringent measure passed regarding fugitive slaves, and it was the only benefit Southerners received from the Compromise. The final Fugitive Slave Act represented a contradiction to the pro–states’ rights southern platform because the South accepted federal legislation that eliminated state initiatives to protect fugitive slaves. More importantly, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 resonated that fugitive slaves were not safe in the North any longer.

SEE ALSO: Clay, HenryCompromise of 1850States’ Rights


Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970); Paul Finkleman, ed., Slavery and the Law (Madison, WI: Madison House, 1997); and Glenn M. Linden, ed., Voices from the Gathering Storm: The Coming of the American Civil War (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001).