The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a part of the Compromise of 1850 in the United States. According to the Fugitive Slave Act, citizens and federal officials were required to assist in returning runaway slaves to their owners. Knowingly defying this law resulted in stiff consequences. The passing of the law is said to have struck terror among blacks and sparked anger in the free states of the North.
The U.S. Congress enacted the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, but because states in the North were free, the act was seldom enforced. Resentment from the South as well as other parts of the Compromise of 1850 prompted Congress to enact the new law in 1850.
In this second enactment, more officials were hired and mandated to actively capture runaway slaves. Citizens also were required to help capture runaway slaves. Those who refused to cooperate, plus those who helped or hid slaves, were subject to fines, imprisonment or both.
Captured slaves were not allowed a trial. Instead, they were appointed a federal commissioner who would hear the case and determine the outcome. To abolitionists, this procedure was seen as unjust. Slaves were not allowed to testify at their trials, and the bulk of the evidence was taken from slave owners who were not even required to make an appearance at the hearing.
In addition, those in the North felt that commissioners were being bribed to side with slave owners. Commissioners who ruled in favor of the slave owner were paid $10 US Dollars (USD), and commissioners who ruled in favor of the slave were only paid $5 USD. The majority of slaves who were captured were returned to their owners.
The Underground Railroad was aggressively used during this period. No blacks in the U.S. were exempt from the law, and although runaway slaves were the target, because slaves could not defend themselves, many free blacks were captured and made into slaves. Fearing for their lives, about 20,000 blacks fled to Canada.
The act caused tension to build between the North and the South. Abolitionists in the North felt that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave preferential treatment to slave owners in the South and that the North should not be required to enforce slavery. Many people in the North did not agree with the law, so some states tried to enact laws that nullified or went against it. Congress repealed both acts in 1864.