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Fugitive Slave Act, 1850

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Suggested Sequencing


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed as part of a compromise between northerners who opposed slavery and its expansion and southerners who wanted to protect their slaveholding rights and prevent their enslaved workers from escaping to the North. The Fugitive Slave Act required northern law enforcement officers and local governments to assist slave catchers in returning fugitive slaves to their owners. Tightening up on federal enforcement in comparison to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the law provided for increased numbers of fugitive slave commissioners. The law denied the runaways the right to a jury trial and the right to testify in their own defense. Furthermore, it imposed hefty fines for officials who failed to cooperate in the return of runaways and it offered bounties to those who captured individuals found to be runaway slaves.

Sourcing Questions

  1. What differences within the United States would make fugitive slaves an issue?
  2. Why might northerners object to strengthening the law on fugitive slaves?

Vocabulary Text
Circuit Courts(n): intermediate federal appellate courts that hear appeals from federal trial courts Section 3
. . . The Circuit Courts of the United States shall from time to time enlarge the number of the commissioners, with a view to afford reasonable facilities to reclaim fugitives from labor, and to the prompt discharge of the duties imposed by this act.
Section 4
And be it further enacted, That the commissioners above named shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the judges of the Circuit and District Courts of the United States, in their respective circuits and districts within the several States, and the judges of the Superior Courts of the Territories, severally and collectively, in term-time and vacation; shall grant certificates to such claimants, upon satisfactory proof being made, with authority to take and remove such fugitives from service or labor, under the restrictions herein contained, to the State or Territory from which such persons may have escaped or fled.
Section 5
And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars, to the use of such claimant, on the motion of such claimant, by the Circuit or District Court for the district of such marshal; and after arrest of such fugitive, by such marshal or his deputy, or whilst at any time in his custody under the provisions of this act, should such fugitive escape, whether with or without the assent of such marshal or his deputy, such marshal shall be liable, on his official bond, to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant, for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive in the State, Territory, or District whence he escaped.. . .
Section 6
. . . to use such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary, under the circumstances of the case, to take and remove such fugitive person back to the State or Territory whence he or she may have escaped as aforesaid. In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.
Section 7
. . . Any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States . . . shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid. . .
Section 8
. . . The marshals, their deputies, and the clerks of the said District and Territorial Courts, shall be paid, for their services . . . shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where the proof shall not, in the opinion of such commissioner, warrant such certificate and delivery. . .

Comprehension Questions

  1. The act empowered the U.S. Circuit Courts for what purpose?
  2. What are the commissioners given the power to do by Section 4?
  3. What are the legal consequences that federal marshals face if they refuse to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act?
  4. In fugitive slave cases, what type of evidence was excluded from being heard in court?
  5. What legal consequences were created for anyone who helped an escaped slave in any manner?
  6. How would U.S. commissioners be compensated for their time in returning fugitive slaves?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. In what ways did this act encourage the returning of fugitive slaves? Cite specific examples from the text as support.
  2. How did this act endanger free blacks, as well as fugitive slaves in the North? Cite specific examples from the text.

Fugitive Slave Act 1850

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