Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

September 18,1850

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by Congress as one provision of the Compromise of 1850. The harsh terms of the act angered many Northerners and contributed to the sectional division over slavery that led to the American Civil War.

Millard Fillmore, Portrait, Brady

Signed into law by President Millard Fillmore on September 18, 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was part of the Compromise of 1850 that established more stringent regulations to help ensure the return of runaway slaves. Image Source: Library of Congress.


The U.S. Constitution and Slavery

When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming “a more perfect Union” between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition during the coming decades.

Protecting Slavery

Although the Founding Fathers did not use the words “slave” or “slavery” in the Constitution, they endorsed three provisions that either codified or protected the “peculiar institution.”

  1. Article I, Section 2 stated, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons,” (emphasis added). “All other Persons,” meant slaves.
  2. Article I, Section 9 declared that “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person (emphasis added). “Such persons” was a more delicate euphemism for the word, “slaves.”
  3. Article IV, Section 2 mandated that “No Person held to Service or Labour 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 Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due (emphasis added). “Person held to Service or Labor” was yet another more diplomatic substitution for the term “slave.”

Of these three oblique references to slavery in the Constitution, the last, often referred to as the Fugitive Slave Clause, proved to be the most ambiguous, and eventually the most contentious and divisive. Although the founders were clear that runaway slaves should be “delivered up” or returned to their masters, they did not address regulations for doing so in the Constitution.

The Northwest Ordinance

At the same time delegates to the Constitutional Convention set about creating plans for a new government, representatives to the Congress of the existing government established under the Articles of Confederation were meeting in New York. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio,” that stipulated “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory. . . ” That legislation, more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance, had the effect of establishing the Ohio River as the border separating free and slave states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. For the next three decades, that boundary forestalled major sectional disputes over slavery.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

It was not long before it became clear that officials needed to establish rules regarding runaway slaves. A legal dispute between the states of Pennsylvania and Virginia prompted Congress to enact “An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters,” in 1793. Commonly known as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the legislation made it a federal crime to aid fugitive slaves and it established a penalty of $500 (a princely sum in those days) for doing so.

The Louisiana Purchase

Sectional quarrels over slavery intensified after the United States purchased 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase created new challenges for the federal government. Besides land ownership issues regarding the native inhabitants, Congress eventually had to address the question of the expansion of slavery in the new territory.

The Missouri Compromise

The first test of federal authority to regulate slavery in the territory came in 1818 when the residents of Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood. Roughly 8,000 to 10,000 slaves lived in the territory at the time. Southerners expected Congress to admit Missouri as a slave state, but New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood measure that would gradually end slavery in the new state. The Tallmadge Amendment started a year of bitter debate in both houses of Congress. Legislators finally reached a compromise in 1820. The Missouri Compromise admitted Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Wishing to avoid similar conflicts, Congress also prohibited slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Territory, north of the southern border of Missouri (36°30′ north latitude).

The Mexican-American War

Although not a perfect solution in the minds of all parties (especially abolitionists), the Missouri Compromise muffled the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States for over three decades. Things changed in 1846 when the U. S. started a war with Mexico — the Mexican-American War — that vastly expanded American territorial possessions in the West.

The Wilmot Proviso

Three months after the war began, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot inserted a “proviso” into an appropriations bill sponsored by President James K. Polk that proposed ending hostilities by purchasing Mexican territory. Wilmot’s proviso stipulated that, in any land acquired from Mexico, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime . . . ” The measure passed in the House, but Southerners defeated it in the Senate. Wilmot reintroduced the proviso again in 1847, with the same results. In 1848, he unsuccessfully attempted to have it inserted into the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. If the Wilmot Proviso re-energized simmering sectional disagreements over the extension of slavery, the results of the Mexican-American War once again brought the issue to a boil.

The Compromise of 1850

The main source of sectional discord over slavery transformed from abstract to concrete in 1848 when Mexico ceded vast tracts of land to the United States, including most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, plus all of present-day California, Nevada, and Utah. The debate over the future of slavery in those territories widened the schism between Northern and Southern views. As the nation inched toward disunion, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of measures, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. Enacted by Congress as separate bills, the Compromise of 1850 attempted to settle the sectional differences dividing the nation by:

  1.  Admitting California to the Union as a free state,
  2.  Authorizing the territorial legislatures of New Mexico and Utah to determine the status of slavery within their borders,
  3. Settling the Texas boundary dispute in favor of the United States, in exchange for federal assumption of $10 million of Texas debt,
  4. Abolishing the slave trade, but not slavery, in the District of Columbia, and
  5. Enacting a more stringent fugitive slave law to help ensure the return of runaway slaves.

Moderates across the country celebrated the legislation, believing that it had saved the Union. President Fillmore proclaimed a “final settlement” to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the debate were not so easily convinced. Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.”

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

Northern Objections

Of all the components of the Compromise of 1850, many Northerners found the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Act the most odious. They objected to the law for several reasons.

Harsher Terms

First, the terms of the law were much harsher and more unfair to suspected runaway slaves. Fugitives no longer had access to a trial by jury in state and local courts when slave owners or their agents apprehended them in Northern states. Instead, they appeared before federal commissioners who determined their fate. When appearing before the commissioners, alleged runaways did not have the right to call witnesses or testify on their own behalf. Finally, the system rewarded the commissioners for ruling against suspected fugitives. The commissioners received ten dollars, paid by the plaintiffs (slave owners), for each suspect sent back into bondage and only half of that amount for each suspect set free.

The discrepancy in the reward system certainly created the opportunity for unscrupulous commissioners to profit from sending free blacks south. Whether any commissioners let personal gain cloud their decisions is unknown. However, modern historical research shows that federal commissioners sent eighty percent of accused runaways back into bondage with no opportunity to present evidence, call witnesses, or testify to defend themselves.

Violation of Personal Liberties

A second reason many Northerners found the new law objectionable was that it impinged upon their own freedom by requiring them to participate personally in the pursuit and apprehension of suspected runaways. The act authorized federal commissioners to deputize citizens and force them to serve on posses against their will. In addition, anyone convicted of aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine—a hefty sum in those days.

The new requirements and penalties had two unintended results. They aroused moderate abolitionists and others sympathetic to the plight of runaway slaves by forcing them to choose between their conscience and the law. The new requirements and penalties also aroused new anti-Southern recruits from Northerners who had little concern for the plight of slaves, but who believed that the law violated their personal liberties.

Expansion of Federal Powers

The third source of discontent among Northerners was the expansion of the federal powers that the law established. As noted before, the new system circumvented state and local jurisdictions by authorizing federal commissioners to adjudicate fugitive slave cases. The act also empowered the commissioners to issue warrants, depose witnesses, and use federal marshals to arrest and imprison suspects within the jurisdictions of the individual states. Federal marshals or local officials who did not cooperate in the pursuit or arrest alleged runaways were subject to fines of $1,000. The law obligated state and local officials to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership.

At a time when the balance of power between the federal government and the individual state governments was much more ambiguous than it is today, Southerners were not the sole disciples of states’ rights arguments. In a strange reversal of roles, Southern apostles of states’ rights championed the extension of federal jurisdiction to protect their property rights north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Simultaneously, many Northern promoters of federal authority to limit or even abolish slavery found the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 insidious and threatening to home rule.


Although the number of slaves returned to bondage between the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the beginning of the Civil War may have been fewer the one thousand, the legislation played a major role in U.S. history. Many blacks living in the North (free and fugitives alike) grasped their precarious legal status and emigrated to Canada or Europe. White hostility towards the act in the North (generated by the reasons cited above) magnified the scope and depth of anti-slavery sentiment outside of the South. In reaction, Southerners became further convinced of their Northern neighbors’ disregard for their property rights. Generally, the act deepened the sectional division threatening the Union and fanned the flames of civil war.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
  • Date September 18,1850
  • Author
  • Keywords Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Compromise of 1850
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 2, 2024