The Bloodhound Law

Fugitive Slave Act

Abolition's Contribution to Democracy

The Fugitive Slave Acts were a pair of federal laws that were a part of the Compromise of 1850. According to this law, runaway slaves were forced to be returned to their owners. During this time, an inferno was sparked by the American value of abolition, which contributed to the continuation of U.S. democracy by giving abolitionists a chance to stand up to and better the government's unsatisfying fulfillment of its duty to respect all its citizens--slaves encompassed--and establish social equality. This gave abolitionists propaganda to sway "normal people": slaves who had braved and survived the risky journey to freedom had to go back, and free blacks were forced into slavery! As long as slavery existed and was heavily-reinforced by U.S. laws such as this one, those who upheld the belief of abolitionism strove to carry out the legacy of American democracy by fighting for freedom for all.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was a federal law written with the purpose of enforcing Article 4, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. It required that all runaway slaves be returned to their owners.


  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1842 Prigg vs. Pennsylvania case that states didn't have to aid in the recapture of slaves, greatly weakening it. Overall, the North ignored the Fugitive Slave Act, passing their own Personal Liberty Laws.


  • Cass County, Michigan was a popular place for freed & fugitive slaves; they were attracted by the peace and equality-believing Quakers, disagreement of discriminatory laws by whites, and cheap land. This drew slaveholders’ attention, so raids were led, but they failed; however, the situation fueled Southerners' demand for a strengthened Act.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850


  • This new law replaced the Fugitive Slave of Act of 1793 with increased severity. It became a "weapon" for abolitionists such a Frederick Douglass.

  • The trials for runaway slaves were extremely unfair--the convicted had no court rights, couldn't testify, and couldn't have a jury trial. This resulted in the kidnapping of free blacks into slavery.

  • Abolitionists hated the law and refused to obey it--they would use force if necessary to bring fugitive slaves to freedom. Runaways often left behind loved ones or risked/sacrificed much to get away. Imagine being a slave, finally escaping from the living hell inflicted upon you by your master, fleeing in the dangerous, unpredictable wilderness, only to be caught again, brought back, and beaten or killed. The Fugitive Slave Act produced horrors like this, which abolitionists were determined to spread awareness of and end.

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Political Perspectives of the Act

  • The Habeas Corpus Law was passed by the Vermont legislature on November 1850, rendering the Fugitive Slave Act uneffective. The South was furious. It was considered “nullification” of federal law, a concept popular in the South.

  • Governor John B. Floyd warned nullification could push the South to secede and President Millard Fillmore threatened to use the army to enforce the Act.

  • In 1854, the Wisconsin Supreme Court was the only high court to declare the Act unconstitutional (Joshua Glover case); but in 1859, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled that.

  • Secretary of State Daniel Webster was a supporter of this law, as demonstrated in his famous "Seventh of March" speech. He wanted high-profile convictions.

Consequences of the Act

  • Officials who didn’t arrest runaway slaves were penalized with a $1,000 fine ($28,000 in today’s currency).

  • A 6 month jail sentence and $1,000 fine were given to anyone who aided a fugitive slave. Promotions or bonuses were awarded to officers that captured runaways.

Fun Fact (Nickname)

The Fugitive Slave Act was called the "Bloodhound Law" by abolitionists. Bloodhounds are dogs that hunt animals by scent. Abolitionists scornfully and angrily related slave catchers chasing slaves to these dogs.
Slavery Fugitive Slave Law