Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law

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The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law that constituted one of its provisions were controversial federal laws intended to pacify the slaveholding South but that outraged northern abolitionists and ultimately helped provoke the Civil War. The compromise was necessitated by the U.S. annexation of territory stretching from Texas to California after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). While this national expansion confirmed the Manifest Destiny ideology that claimed that God intended America to extend "from sea to shining sea," it posed a significant political problem. Since 1820 a precarious balance had been achieved between free (nonslaveholding) and slave states. This balance had been established by the Missouri Compromise, which legislated that slavery would not be allowed to spread above the Mason-Dixon line, roughly equivalent to the 36°30′ parallel, nor would slavery be prevented below it. Ruled by this law, the growth of the nation in the early nineteenth century—including the admission of Missouri and Maine in 1820 and the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the Oregon Territory in 1848—was monitored by a strict division of slavery in the South and freedom in the North. The Compromise of 1820 sought to allow the United States to continue to function as a united nation by satisfying both the North and the South and thus to defer the political and ethical dilemmas posed by the practice of slavery in a nation founded upon the phrase "all men are created equal."

In 1850 the political balance was upset as the number of free states was allowed to exceed the number of slave states. The United States was eager to admit California as a state after the discovery of gold in 1848, but the Wilmot Proviso (1846) prevented slavery anywhere in the new territory gained from Mexico. Thus California could only be admitted as a free state. Southerners viewed the resulting imbalance as a threat to their very way of life; they feared that the federal government would soon be dominated by an antislavery agenda. John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), senator from South Carolina, argued that it was necessary to "satisfy the States belonging to the Southern section that they can remain in the Union consistently with their honor and their safety. . . . Nothing else can, with any certainty, finally and for ever settle the question at issue, terminate agitation, and save the Union" (pp. 559, 572). The Compromise of 1850 sought to pacify the South in several ways. The admission of California was balanced by the fact that the Utah and New Mexico territories were allowed to determine their own free or slave status through popular sovereignty. But the farthest-reaching aspect of the compromise was the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Law, a law intended to prevent southern unrest but which resulted in outrage and indignation in the North.


The Fugitive Slave Law was only one element of the Compromise of 1850, but it provoked the most passionate response. The law was intended to placate southern concerns about the spread of antislavery sympathies into the federal government; ironically the public outcry over the law resulted in the abolitionist movement gaining a more prominent political role than it had had previously. The Fugitive Slave Law essentially ruled that fugitive slaves or slaves who had escaped into free northern states were still subject to southern slave laws. They could legally be recaptured and returned to the South as slaves. In other words, the law required northern states, even those that had ruled slavery illegal, to abide by southern laws that declared slavery legal. Moreover, the law contained conspicuously corrupt provisions such as those that denied accused fugitive slaves the right to testify in their own defense or the right to trial by jury. Instead the law appointed commissioners to oversee the trials, who were compensated $5 for freeing a fugitive but $10 for returning one to the South.

Northerners were particularly outraged over the Fugitive Slave Law's ruling that they were required to assist in the capture and return of escaped slaves. In states like Vermont and Massachusetts, which had abolished slavery in the eighteenth century, the idea that their citizens were required by federal law to turn in escaped slaves was repulsive. Northern free blacks were particularly alarmed that the law did not contain allowances for those blacks who were not escaped slaves; blacks who had lived their entire lives as free citizens could easily be captured and "returned" to a slavery they had never before experienced. Thousands of free blacks and fugitive slaves fled to Canada, no longer secure in the protection of the free states. Several northern states witnessed the formation of "vigilance committees" designed to intervene, with violence if necessary, to prevent blacks from being seized by southern slave catchers. The Underground Railroad, a secret alliance of abolitionists who assisted slaves in their flight to freedom, faced greater danger even as the activity on the railroad increased in response to the new law.


Reactions to the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law exacerbated rather than relieved the growing divisions between the North and the South. In an effort to mollify the South, politicians alienated the North and transformed many whites who had previously considered themselves unaffected by slavery into fervent abolitionists. Abolitionist leaders were outspoken in their condemnation of the law, no one more so than Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), a former slave who had achieved national prominence as the editor of an antislavery newspaper. In the speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" (1852), Douglass declared that "slavery has been nationalized in its more horrible and revolting form": "By that act, Mason & Dixon's line has been obliterated; New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States" (p. 121). After 1850 Douglass began to consider the possibility that the abolition of slavery could only be achieved through the violation of the law. In 1853 Douglass authored The Heroic Slave, a fictionalized account of the life of Madison Washington, a slave who led a revolt in 1841 against the slave traders who held him captive. By explaining Washington's motives, Douglass explored the justification behind violent resistance and gave voice to his own frustration over the Fugitive Slave Law.

One northerner strongly affected by the Fugitive Slave Law was Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Stowe argued that the law called everyone, even women and children, to act in defense of freedom. Her own response took the form of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852), which portrayed the horrific experiences of slavery in graphic detail. Through the sympathetic slave character Uncle Tom, Stowe sought to sway public opinion against southern slavery. But Stowe did not limit her novel to the South; instead the novel moves equally between North and South, demonstrating how slavery affects the entire nation. Stowe took particular care to depict white northerners like Mary Bird and the Quaker Rachel Halliday, who assist fugitive slaves and consciously violate the Fugitive Slave Law. In the novel, Mrs. Bird argues persuasively that the Fugitive Slave Law is "a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I'll break it, for one, the first chance. . . . I don't know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow" (p. 144). Through her portraits of these characters, Stowe sought to provide a model of behavior for northern whites, encouraging them to subvert the law in any way that they could. Uncle Tom's Cabin was an overnight sensation, selling over 300,000 copies in one year. As the most popular novel of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin influenced countless readers in their opinions about the Fugitive Slave Law and its impact upon slaves seeking freedom.

The consequences of the Fugitive Slave Law were also powerfully captured in slave narratives, autobiographical accounts of the experience of slavery that gained popularity in the nineteenth century. Slave narratives published after 1850 describe how the Fugitive Slave Law affected even slaves who had achieved their freedom. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) writes that the law unleashed a "reign of terror" over northern blacks: "I lived in a state of anxiety. . . . I was, in fact, a slave in New York, as subject to slave laws as I had been in a Slave State. Strange incongruity in a State called free!" (pp. 147, 150). In Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), William Craft describes how he and his wife Ellen achieved a daring escape: Ellen, who was light skinned, posed as a white, male slave owner, while William posed as her slave. In this way they traveled from Georgia to Pennsylvania. But their freedom was short-lived because accounts of their escape had made them celebrities, and they were targeted by the slave catchers empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law. The Crafts joined many other prominent black writers and intellectuals who fled to England to escape the constant threat of recapture.

Despite the power and popularity of literary critiques like these, the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law continued to have long-lasting political effects. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 further eroded the efficacy of the Mason-Dixon Line by allowing those two territories to decide by popular sovereignty whether or not to allow slavery. Proslavery and antislavery supporters flooded into Kansas to decide the vote, causing a violent conflagration known as "Bleeding Kansas" that resulted in numerous deaths, provoked John Brown's raid upon Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and foreshadowed the coming war. In 1857 the Fugitive Slave Law was put to a legal test during the Dred Scott case. Scott was a slave whose owner had moved to Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited. Scott sued, arguing that he and his wife should be considered free due to their residence in free territories. But the U.S. Supreme Court decided against Scott's claim and upheld the premise of the Fugitive Slave Law that even free states were subject to the laws of slavery. The opinion of Roger B. Taney, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, went far beyond the issue of Scott's freedom and declared that blacks were "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit" (Lowance, p. 459). The Court declared that blacks were not American citizens and thus not included in the rights declared by the Declaration of Independence: "The general words [all men are created equal] would seem to embrace the whole human family. . . . But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration" (p. 461). Furthermore, the Dred Scott case ruled once and for all that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional and that no legal limits could be placed upon slavery.

It was in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law that Abraham Lincoln made his now famous statement that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." He astutely recognized that in the decade between the Compromise of 1850 and the presidential election of 1860, when Lincoln was elected to the presidency, the nation had become more divided than ever before. The laws that sought to rectify these divisions by allowing slavery to persist and even expand across the nation only worked to cause further antagonism and disagreement. The political legacy of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law is arguably the Civil War itself, the final solution to the long question of slavery's place in a free society.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Blacks; Civil War; Clotel;Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;Slavery; Uncle Tom's Cabin


Primary Works

Calhoun, John C. "Speech on the Slavery Question, 4 March 1850." In The Works of John C. Calhoun, vol. 4, edited by Richard K. Crallé, pp. 542–573. New York: D. Appleton, 1853–1856.

Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. 1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

Douglass, Frederick. "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" 1852. In The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, edited by William L. Andrews, pp. 108–130. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lowance, Mason I., Jr., ed. "Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and Dred Scott v. Sanford (1856)." In A House Divided: The Antebellum Slavery Debates in America, 1776–1865, pp. 26–30, 458–462. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. Edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster. New York: Norton, 2001.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. 1851–1852. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Secondary Works

Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of theUnderground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement. 1941. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Hamilton, Holman. Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis andCompromise of 1850. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1964.

Holt, Michael F. The Political Crises of the 1850s. New York: Wiley, 1978.

Sewell, Richard H. A House Divided: Sectionalism and CivilWar, 1848–1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Desirée Henderson

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Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Law

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