The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 wasn’t the first compromise Congress designed to try to handle the nation’s differences of opinion
about slavery. Thirty years earlier, in 1820, Senator Henry Clay had organized the Missouri Compromise to manage the same problem by balancing the number of free states and slave states in the Union. By 1850, though, the United States had grown even more – the Mexican-American War had just ended, and America had won a large amount of territory. Was that land to be slave territory or free territory? At the same time, the territory of California was petitioning to become an official state itself. California wanted to be a free state, which would upset the balance established in the Missouri Compromise. Abolitionists and slave-owners disagreed passionately, and Henry Clay saw that it was time for Congress to pass another set of bills making a new compromise, or else the Union would break apart.
The Compromise of 1850
To keep the nation together, Congress passed a group of bills that together are called the Compromise of 1850. In the Compromise, California was made a free state; Washington DC remained a slave district but the slave trade there was banned; and Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah were established as territories with the plan that they could each decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery when they became states later. Because this plan introduced a new free state into the country and didn’t balance it with a new slave state, Congress added the Fugitive Slave Act to the Compromise to satisfy the slave states.
The New Slave Act
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had several parts, all of which were good for slave owners and bad for slaves. Citizens were now required by law to help catch and return run-away slaves, and slaves who were caught no longer had the right to a trial by jury. Instead, they were tried by people hired especially for that purpose who were paid $10 for returning them to slave owners and only $5 for letting them go free. Marshals were fined $1,000 if they refused to look for escaped slaves, which was an enormous amount of money in those days. Runaway slaves who had escaped and had been living as free people in the North, some of them for years, were tracked down and returned to slavery.
Many people, both slaves and free citizens, were very upset about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Abolitionists were unwilling to help locate escaped slaves and return them to the South, and many people had to examine their conscience and beliefs seriously for the first time. The laws preventing escaped slaves from having a trial and awarding courts more money for returning them than for freeing them seemed deeply unfair, and people who had been on the fence about slavery before now had to take a side. Would they help find fugitives, or would they help them run? To make the situation even worse, many free African Americans were captured and tried as escaped slaves. Because they couldn’t defend themselves and did not get fair trials, they were usually put into slavery in the South.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad had existed before the Compromise of 1850, but the Fugitive Slave Act gave it new energy, and it became
a serious option for escaping slaves. It was no longer safe for people to stop running when they reached the free states, so now the Underground Railroad began guiding fugitives all the way north to Canada, where they could not be recaptured. Many free African Americans living in the North decided to move to Canada as well, just to be safe.
Although the Compromise of 1850 was originally designed to keep the Union together and make both slave owners and abolitionists happy, the Fugitive Slave Act was so controversial that it actually contributed to the start of the Civil War. People could no longer ignore the question of whether or not they wanted slavery in their country – the new laws forced people to choose and to take a stand, and the Fugitive Slave Act was so unfair that many people who hadn’t cared much about slavery before now found themselves against it. The law made life so hard for African Americans that the abolitionist cause gained a lot of support, until finally the nation split into war and slavery was abolished for good.
- PBS.org. “The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act”
- Ohio History Central. “Fugitive Slave Law of 1850”
- Photo from “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Willbur H. Siebert Wilbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898, public domain, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Undergroundrailroadsmall2.jpg.