What is the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850? (with pictures)

H. Lo
H. Lo
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 mandated that captured slaves be returned to their owners.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 mandated that captured slaves be returned to their owners.

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.

Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.
Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.

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.

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Discussion Comments


I think it is sad that the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, not once, but twice. I know the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was not enforced and that is why they re-evaluated it in 1850, but it still does not make the act okay.

The fact that many previously legally freed slaves were forced back into slavery just because the South was getting even more greedy and petty, is a very tragic event to even just think back upon.

If I was around in these times, I really would have not liked the fact that I would have been made out to be a criminal and even made to pay a fine and serve jail time just for helping out my fellow man/woman. Paying a fine and jail time would have been totally worth doing the right thing though.

The whole idea of anyone making any other human being into their slave makes me seriously sick to my stomach. Also, not being legally aloud to help others gain their freedom is foul too. I know that slavery had been going on for a long time, so slavery did not seem so outrageous back then, but still, it is not right and people deep down had to know that it was not right.

In my opinion, anyone who is a decent/logical/sane/moral person would not have someone else be their slave, even if a person wanted to be a slave or was at least okay with it. I can see why so many Northern states did not want to take part in this atrocity!


@turquoise-- It certainly angered the abolitionist groups and Blacks. But I think for the most part, the rest of the country was okay with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. I think it's called a compromise because the North and South were really tired of fighting about slavery.

The Act did not contribute to the tension that led to the Civil War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave the two states the right to decide whether they wanted slavery or not and which re-ignited the aggression between the North and South, was the main culprit in my view.


Do you think that the 1850 compromise intensified the Civil War and brought it about more quickly?

I honestly did not know much about the Compromise or the Fugitive Slave Act until now and I am shocked to know the policy this Act brought about. Imagine free Blacks that had liberated themselves and settled in the North suddenly being sent back to be slaves again. That is a horrific thing to do.

I remember reading about Harriet Tubman in Middle School and how she went back and forth between Canada and US to save more blacks. How can someone who has tasted freedom be forced to go back to slavery like that?

If I was an abolitionist at the time, it certainly would anger me to watch this happening and I would want to fight the South sooner to resolve this once and for all.


What kind of evidence did slave owners generally have to present to win the case? Or was this all just bureaucracy since slaves were almost always returned to their owners anyway?

I don't really understand why there was an even a trial for fugitive slaves when the whole process and the Act itself was unjust. It would make sense to hold a trial for a fugitive slave if the court had a sincere intention of determining whether the slave had valid reasons to run away. Because if a slave has become a fugitive and is caught in the North, that to me is a request by the slave for independence with the help of the Northern states.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 is just a shame. I can understand the frustration the Northern states felt about this issue because they really weren't able to do anything about it. But I also feel that the North did not try hard enough.


@robbie21 - The fugitive slave law did have more teeth than previous versions, but it still depended for enforcement on northern juries - and they weren't having it. Jury nullification as very common; people who had clearly committed "crimes" under this law were often acquitted by juries. Convictions were rare.

The bottom line is that slavery in America caused real tensions between slave states and free states that were bound to come to a head. The Compromise of 1850 was supposed to ease those tensions, but in some ways it made things worse by focusing so much attention on the issue. Even Henry Clay could only keep things together for so long!


What a lot of people don't realize about the fugitive slave law of 1850 is that its main idea is actually codified in the Constitution. That's right, when the framers hammered out the details of it, those representing slave states managed to get this in there.

They feared - correctly - that slaves would escape to northern states and be safe there. Requiring northern governments and individuals to return fugitive slaves made them more secure and willing to go along with other provisions of the Constitution. (For instance, its provisions also banned the importing of slaves beginning twenty years in the future, in 1808. After that, in theory all slaves were home-grown, but in practice smuggling continued.)

But enforcement of this requirement was spotty, hence the new Fugitive Slave Act - it had more teeth.

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    • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 mandated that captured slaves be returned to their owners.
      The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 mandated that captured slaves be returned to their owners.
    • Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.
      Frederick Douglass spoke out against slavery and helped other slaves become free.