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Dark day in history

It was part of a compromise package of five bills that was supposed to save the Union. But it was far too little too late to hold the Southern states and far too much and too onerous to be tolerated in the North. About the only good thing to be said for it? From a genealogical perspective, it triggered the creation of records. Lots and lots of records.

It is, of course, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which became law 172 years ago today.1 And its passage was indeed a dark day in American history.

It wasn’t the first legal mandate that runaway slaves be returned to their masters. In fact, Article IV, section 2, of the United States Constitution provided that:

No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.2

Acting on the authority of that provision, Congress adopted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which provided in part that the master of any person held to labor could “seize or arrest such fugitive from labor” but then had to bring the fugitive before a court and provide “proof to the satisfaction of (a) Judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such State or Territory, that the person so seized or arrested, doth, under the laws of the State or Territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labor.”3

It hadn’t worked all that well. Northern states routinely ignored the earlier statute in favor of their own personal liberty laws, which required jury trials before fugitive slaves could be removed from the state. Some states refused to allow the use of public jails to hold fugitive slaves and some barred their own officials from helping to arrest or return slaves to slavemasters.4 Even when it struck down Pennsylvania laws that conflicted with the early Fugitive Slave Act, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842 held that states didn’t have to help enforce that federal law at all.5

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

All that changed with the passage of the 1850 act. Among its key provisions:

• New federal commissioners were appointed to oversee the process.6

• All federal marshals and deputy marshals were required to help arrest fugitive slaves, and — if a slave escaped from custody — the marshal was “liable … to be prosecuted … for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive…”7

• All a slaveowner needed was his own sworn statement that the person was an escaped slave.8

• The accused fugitive wasn’t allowed a jury trial and couldn’t testify on his or her own behalf.8

• Any person who helped a runaway slave in any way was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.10

Bringing the combined power of the federal government down on the heads of northern abolitionists seems like it should have worked. And in a large number of cases, it did. Over the 15 months after the law was enacted, “84 fugitives were returned to slavery and only 5 were released” while “(f) the entire decade of the 1850s the ration was 332 to 11.”11

But there was resistance. So much resistance. And so much of the resistance resulted in records. Today, we can read about the rescue of Shadrach Minkins by abolitionists in Boston. And about the efforts of abolitionists there to save Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave. And the efforts to save Lucy Bagby of Cleveland from being returned to slavery. And to save Stephen Pembroke and his sons in New York.

We can read about the way the Wisconsin Supreme Court held the act unconstitutional within its borders, only to be itself overruled by the United States Supreme Court.12

Vermont liberty law

Or the way so many other states responded by enacting so-called Personal Liberty Laws which “forbade justices and judges to take cognizance of claims, extended the habeas corpus act and the privilege of jury trial to fugitives, and punished false testimony severely”: Vermont (1850); Connecticut (1854); Rhode Island (1854); Massachusetts (1855); Michigan (1855); Maine (1855 and 1857); Kansas (1858); and Wisconsin (1858).13

The Vermont law — originally passed in 1843 and amended in 1850 — went so far as to require its officials to help fugitive slaves who were captured,14 and Vermont newspapers openly defied the law.

Read the laws. Read the court cases. Read about the records. They shed light on what was otherwise a dark day in our history.


Poster image via Wikimedia Commons, user Lotsofissues

  1. An Act to amend, and supplementary to, the Act entitled ‘An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Master,’ approved February 12th, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three,” 9 Stat. 462-465 (18 Sep 1850); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 17 Sep 2012).
  2. United States Constitution, Article IV, section 2 (superseded by Thirteenth Amendment, December 1865).
  3. “An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Master,” 1 Stat. 302-305 (12 Feb 1793).
  4. See generally Wikipedia (, “Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” rev. 11 Sep 2012.
  5. Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 539 (1842).
  6. Act of 18 Sep 1850, §§ 1 & 4, 9 Stat. 462.
  7. Ibid., § 5.
  8. Ibid., § 6, 9 Stat. 463.
  9. Ibid., § 6, 9 Stat. 463.
  10. Ibid., § 7, 9 Stat. 464.
  11. See “Fugitive Slave Law,” Note Cards, Dickinson University ( : accessed 17 Sep 2012), quoting John M. Murrin, et al., eds., Liberty Equality Power: A History of the American People, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 456-57.
  12. Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506 (1859).
  13. Fugitive Slave Laws,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, vol. 11; html version, Project Gutenberg( : accessed 17 Sep 2012).
  14. Title XXVII, Chapter 101, “Rights of Persons Claimed as Fugitive Slaves,” in Charles L. Williams, The Compiled Statutes of the State of Vermont (Burlington: Chauncey Goodrich, 1851), 536-537.
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