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The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Crisis of Civic Identity in America

It has been 170 years since the signing of the Fugitive Slave Act, a piece of legislation which divided the United States among sectional lines. It continued a legacy of denying blacks the opportunity to receive due process, throwing countless obstacles on the road to hope and freedom. For many white Americans, the Act drove a spike between the ideals of our founding documents and defining what it meant to be a good citizen. In this essay I wrote for the David McCullough Essay Prize for the Gilder Lehrman Institute, I explored this contradiction and the power grip that slaveholders had over Antebellum national politics.



Frederick Douglass once said that “America is its contradictions all wrapped up in its contradictions” (1). In a nation that embraced Enlightenment principles, many examples can be cited noting how hypocrisy, profitability, and inequality have plagued the American political system. Prominent among those examples is the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Act was branded as “cruel, unchristian, devilish” by Senator Charles Sumner and one historian dubbed the piece of legislation “one of the most assailable laws ever passed by the Congress of the United States” (2). Why was the Act so putrid? Not because it was unconstitutional; in fact, the Act was passed to strengthen the enforcement of a clause written directly in the Constitution (3).

Our founders inscribed into the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" - and yet American history shows that we have not lived up to that standard.

Rather, the uproar came from a segment of America that believed their nation could aspire to better values. In 1776, the framers prescribed the citizens of their young nation with a credo that “all Men are created equal” and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (4). The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, however, brought the United States further away from attaining that credo by placing more legal ammunition in the hands of those who sought to maintain slavery, ultimately lighting “the fuse that eventually led to the Civil War” (5). Through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the United States government exposed flaws preventing the realization of its founding ideals specified in the Declaration of Independence by enhancing a pattern of obstructing justice, espousing inflammatory rhetoric, and destructing a system which legislates based on the consent of the governed in order to appease a privileged few.


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The Fugitive Slave Act failed to encourage fairness in its procedures to recapture fugitive slaves. Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution established the groundwork for the federal government to assist in recapturing fugitive slaves. An act from 1793 attempted to set the standard for enforcing the clause, placing considerable power to capture fugitives in the hands of state officials. Questions arose, however, over the obligation of states to actually carry out the measure, and the 1843 Supreme Court ruling in Prigg v. Pennsylvania assured that the federal government had exclusive responsibility to recover escapees (6). In order to fill the void that the ruling opened, Southerners vouched for a stronger bill that revolutionized the standards for slave recapture. The response to that outcry culminated in the more comprehensive and reprehensible Fugitive Slave Act, tacked onto the Compromise of 1850 as a concession to the South. Upon examining the Act, many Americans were aghast at its features, leading to protests in Northern cities like Chicago (7). People grew enraged because “Big Government” was calling on every single American to set aside their humane inclinations to help slaveholders retain their presumptive right to own humans, and anyone attempting to go against that declaration could be locked up in prison for six months and fined up to a thousand dollars, over $31,000 in today’s money (8).

Advertisements like these to help recapture fugitive slaves were commonplace in newspapers in Antebellum America

The system that the Act constructed was certainly intended to be efficient, but it did so at the risk of losing factual and judicious integrity in dealing with each individual circumstance. A variety of corrupting forces were at play when an accused fugitive was brought before a commissioner. For one, a slaveowner or his agent could theoretically identify any legally free black man or woman as his runaway, and “the courts could send you into slavery if even one person swore before a judge that you were a specific slave” (9). Moreover, the Act cemented the possibility that a “misunderstanding” could lead to false convictions, and it managed this by continuing the standard of denying blacks basic legal privileges defined by the Bill of Rights, including but not limited to the right to habeas corpus and the right to legal council, outlined in Amendments Nine and Six respectively (10). In their battle to preserve their freedom, accused fugitives were also prohibited to say anything on the record to defend themselves. Section 6 of the law read that “in no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence” (11). No wonder these hearings “often lasted just minutes” (12).


All the while, commissioners were monetarily incentivized to send silenced and petrified black strangers back into chains. The Act pronounced that a commissioner presiding was entitled to $10 of U.S. Treasury dollars for each conviction of a fugitive, but only $5 in every trial that exonerated the accused (13). Stephen Douglas fancied this discrepancy simply as reparations for filling out more paperwork (14), but it is certainly intriguing that a commissioner could earn double the pay for the cost of another man's freedom. Now, it would be unfair to chalk up every hearing’s resolution to an instance of malintent. Many commissioners were in fact Northerners, and abolitionists frequently stormed proceedings to place pressure on officials to let the fugitive in question go (15). However, the avenue for sin against thy brother was opened up to an astounding degree, and any remorseless man in power was placed in a position to abuse it lawfully thanks to the procedures that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 embraced. The blatant repudiation of an individual from protecting their unalienable right to liberty directly conflicted with the philosophies entrenched within the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. The Fugitive Slave Act actively violated principles that ensure fairness and responsibility in weighing the facts of a case.

A depiction of Anthony Burns and Thomas Sims being escorted back into slavery after an 1854 hearing in Boston.

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Shameful and misleading rhetoric played a regrettably large role in the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As stated previously, Southern slaveowners had long been anticipating a newer, bolder law that protected “their human property” from escaping. Contemporary judges like John McLean and subsequent historians like Allen Johnson certified that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was in fact constitutional when passed (16). But while the United States government had every right to pass the infamous Act, the curious historian asks: why was it passed at that specific time? Was there some spike in the number of fugitives that spurred Congress to act in 1850? Here is where the historian can witness how effective appeals to violence and slaughter have been in forming reactionary national policy.

Solomon Northup, the original author of the account "Twelve Years a Slave" in 1853, was captured as a free man and was sent to work on plantations in the South for over a decade. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did not help prevent these instances of injustice from occurring.

When discussions began on Capitol Hill about the tentative Fugitive Slave Act, statistics regarding runaways were practically nonexistent. Therefore, the lack of information “lent an air of abstraction and unreality to the debate,” leaving any substantial high-minded discourse about the topic and the proposed Act to the wind (17). At one point, South Carolina’s own Andrew Pickens Butler assured his colleagues that “no one had ever heard of an instance of anyone pursuing a free man and claiming him as a slave” (18).

Unless he recognized that he was hiding the truth from his fellow-senators, Butler must not have realized that the instance he denied was actually relatively common (see the Academy Award-winning movie "12 Years a Slave" for an emotional depiction of those situations). Since the Fugitive Slave Act ironically made situations like the ones Butler denied more likely, those comments in hindsight seem detrimental to the intricate methodology that should be exerted when creating laws.


Elected officials have a duty under oath to make and obey the laws of the land and foster the continuation of the United States as one unified country, and Southern rhetoric was so powerful in dictating the Act’s acceptance because of that oath. Those appeals, however, weren’t backed by credible evidence, and the hysteria present in the comments of Southern senators opened the door for lawmakers to pass bills which encroached on the natural rights beholden to every American. Public Law 503 sent Japanese-Americans into relocation camps in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the Patriot Act signed away privacy protections following 9/11. Both of these acts were byproducts of events that set Americans on edge, and were not collectively rationalized until after they were passed. The Fugitive Slave Act can be placed in this category thanks to the overwrought assertions of Southern leaders which spurred counterparts to believe that the nation would be in jeopardy if the Act wasn’t adopted as law. Due to an absence of reliable information surrounding the fugitive slave crisis in America in 1850, narratives were manipulated and misrepresented in order to garner support for the Fugitive Slave Act as an agent of national harmony.


***


The implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 proved the extent of the political leverage held by a highly elite class of slaveholders. Slavery was “the primary economic engine of the South” (19), accounting for the “largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy” (20). Considering the stratification that became commonplace in the antebellum South, the elite slaveholders enjoyed an unmatched amount of influence and prestige, both economically and politically. Prosperous planters were often elevated to the Senate by Southern state legislatures, where they were called upon to represent their constituents and, in turn, their section. As the debate over the Fugitive Slave Act and the Compromise of 1850 occurred, Southern leaders in Washington intimated that if the North was unwilling to secure their section’s right to retain their human property, they would not hesitate to break the sacred compact that the Constitution represented.


Senator James Murray Mason, the author of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, owned over a dozen slaves himself. He went on to represent the Confederacy abroad as an envoy.

As representatives of their states, it would be surmisable that the emotions of Southern senators would therefore reflect those of their constituents, especially when it came to the Fugitive Slave Act. However, when historians confront the statistics, a different reality emerges. Sources from the period show that in 1860, ten years after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, only 23.9% of white Southerners owned at least one slave (21). By those indications, over three-quarters of the citizens that the impassioned Southern senators represented held no slaves of their own and, hence, would not be affected directly by the harsh Fugitive Slave Act. For a sizable plurality of these Southern senators to openly discuss secession in the halls of Congress, the demographic makeup of their section of America seemed to either upend any real threat of executing a broadscale and inevitably violent secession or would suggest that an awesome amount of power concentrated in the hands of the aforementioned senators. At least, the latter was what some conspiracy theorists in the North concluded, dubbing the noticeable imbalance “Slave Power” (22). To those theorists’ credit, it was odd how a nation celebrating democratic principles at an ever-increasing rate was teetering on the brink of disunion based upon the incomes of 393,975 slaveholders nationwide in 1860, an assumedly unpretentious 1.26% portion of the population (23).


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was not immune from these astounding circumstances. James Murray Mason, a Senator from Virginia that owned over a dozen slaves, authored the Fugitive Slave Act. Although the final tally for the law was “deliberately left unrecorded” (24), historians can confidently hypothesize that every single slaveholding congressman from the South voted in favor of the bill. There was no real incentive to mollify a majority of Americans with the Fugitive Slave Act; in fact, “it may well be contended that an act which outraged the feelings of half the people of the United States was ill-advised” (25). Money and power, rather, pushed the bill through Congress, further solidifying the economic and class structures that had long defined America.


President Millard Fillmore, a man who "detest[ed] slavery," was unable to use his influence to bring an end to slavery and the power of slaveholders within the federal government. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act on September 18, 1850, as a part of the Compromise which he hoped would restore peace to the Union.

The influence that slaveholders utilized often made Americans fundamentally opposed to slavery doubtful that the institution would ever cease. Even President Millard Fillmore, a Northerner that hated slavery, helplessly wrote Daniel Webster that “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it… till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world” (26). No president would have been able to openly sympathize with the plight of slaves without the Union crumbling under their watch. Although every president that enforced the Act was from a Northern state, they too fell victim to the power that Southern slaveholders held in American politics.


After the Fugitive Slave Act introduced a wave of protest and the publishing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the federal government further entrenched itself in protecting and expanding slavery whenever possible, from Bleeding Kansas to Dred Scott. By the time the Civil War divided the nation, every sitting U.S. president had never embraced abolitionist principles, and it would take the bloodiest day in American history for Lincoln to change course. All along, the fight for the continuation of slavery didn’t originate among the masses - it was spewed from the top down. “Slave Power” may have been a conspiracy, but the ethic assuring that the federal government would legislate on behalf of all the people was not a priority in 1850. The profits of a meager 1.26% of Americans directed the political fortune and prosecution of the Fugitive Slave Act.


***


Out of an estimated 15,000 slaves that had fled their captivity during the time the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect (27), only 332 fugitive slaves were returned to the South (28). In terms of accomplishing what it was intended for, the Act was largely ineffectual - but it was very efficient in stirring up controversy and leading a fractured America into all out war. Fundamentally, the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act underlined a growing chasm between the professed ideals of America and the governance of America. Under the “era of slave hunting and kidnapping” that ensued between 1850 and the Civil War (29), denials of the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” were commonplace. The era marked a turning point in defining what a good citizen and patriot entailed, whether a good citizen abided wholeheartedly by the laws on the books or whether they practiced civil disobedience to laws they found inevitably harmful to what America should be. The Founders provided imperfect but malleable tools through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to moderate this definition as Americans continue their unending march towards perfection. While obstructions like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 distract from reaching that higher calling, Americans can never waver from following and amending those guiding documents if they intend to build an excellent society for their posterity.


You can read the original text of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 at this link.



Citations

Bordewich, Fergus M. America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Brands, H. W. Heirs of the Founders: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants. Anchor Books, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.

“The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and Politics of Slavery.” Performance by Richard Blackett, and David Blight, YouTube, The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, 10 Sept. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkzMFXlyjqo&t=739s.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Slavery Made America.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 7 Nov. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/slavery-made-america/373288/.

Corbett, P. Scott, et al. “Wealth and Culture in the South.” US History I (OS Collection), OER Services, courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory1os2xmaster/chapter/wealth-and-culture-in-the-south/.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. The Cato Institute, 2004.

“The Election of 1860 & the Road to Disunion: Crash Course US History #18.” Performance by John Green, YouTube, CrashCourse, 13 June 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=roNmeOOJCDY&t=102s.

“Fugitive Slave Act 1850.” Avalon Project - Fugitive Slave Act 1850, 2008, avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp.

“The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2000, www.crf-usa.org/images/pdf/Fugitive-Slave-Law-1850.pdf.

“Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.” Ohio History Central, ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Fugitive_Slave_Law_of_1850.

Gross, Terry. “How The Fugitive Slave Act Ignited A 'Struggle For America's Soul'.” NPR, NPR, 6 Nov. 2018, www.npr.org/2018/11/06/664695634/the-fugitive-slave-act-and-the-struggle-for-america-s-soul.

Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier in the White House. Archon Books, 1966.

Johnson, Allen. “The Constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Acts.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 1921, pp. 161–182. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/789306. Accessed 14 Aug. 2020.

Mackey, Al. “The Extent of Slave Ownership in the United States in 1860.” Student of the American Civil War, Wordpress, 18 Apr. 2017, studycivilwar.wordpress.com/2017/04/18/the-extent-of-slave-ownership-in-the-united-states-in-1860/.

“Slavery at Monticello FAQs - Property.” Monticello, www.monticello.org/slavery/slavery-faqs/property/.

Smith, Elbert B. The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor & Millard Fillmore. University Press of Kansas, 1988.

Staff, Amerian History Central. “Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.” American History Central, R.Squared Communications, LLC, 21 June 2020, www.americanhistorycentral.com/entries/fugitive-slave-act-of-1793/.

“The War Before The War: How the Fugitive Slave Act Tipped America toward The Civil War.” Performance by Andrew Delbanco, YouTube, HEC Books, 4 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlBF1o4wKQg.


Notes

  1. Blight 93:55-94:03

  2. Johnson 161

  3. Gross "How the Fugitive Slave Act Ignited A 'Struggle For America's Soul'"

  4. The Cato Institute “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America”

  5. Delbanco 17:17-17:21

  6. “Fugitive Slave Act of 1793” American History Central

  7. Hamilton 404

  8. The Avalon Project “Fugitive Slave Act 1850”

  9. Green 1:35-1:46

  10. The Cato Institute “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America”

  11. The Avalon Project “Fugitive Slave Act 1850”

  12. CRF “The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850”

  13. The Avalon Project “Fugitive Slave Act 1850”

  14. Johnson 173

  15. Blackett 76:01-76:55

  16. Johnson 176, 182

  17. Bordewich 321

  18. Bordewich 322

  19. Monticello “Slavery FAQs - Property”

  20. Coates “Slavery Made America”

  21. Corbett et. al. “Wealth and Culture in the South”

  22. Green 1:59-2:18

  23. Mackey “The Extent of Slave Ownership in the United States in 1860”

  24. Bordewich 329

  25. Johnson 171

  26. Smith 211

  27. CRF “The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850”

  28. Ohio History Connection “Fugitive Slave Law of 1850”

  29. Hamilton 404



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