Fugitive Slave Act of 1850


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 represented an effort by white southerners to use federal power to protect slavery by providing for the recovery of fugitive slaves who crossed state boundaries in their efforts to escape. Meant to improve upon previous legislation to enforce the Constitution’s provision for the return of fugitives “held to service or labor,” the new law became the most controversial measure passed as part of what became known as the Compromise of 1850, an omnibus package of five bills. Many northerners who were at best vaguely antislavery still found the new measure objectionable, with its denial of any rights for the accused, an inherent unfairness in the compensation due commissioners depending on the verdict, and provisions that might draw northerners into enforcing the measure.

Throughout the nineteenth century many northerners, black and white, had been assisting slaves escaping to freedom. Several states had passed laws offering some protection for those...

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James Murray Mason (Library of Congress)

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