The Bloodhound Law
Fugitive Slave Act
Abolition's Contribution to Democracy
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.
Recapture of Runaways
Slave catchers were paid handsomely to bring runaways back to their master. Fugitives that were caught suffered harsh punishments.
This was a poster put up on April 24, 1851. It warned the African Americans in Boston that slave catchers were after them.
Operation of the Act
This is a scene depicting the terrible Fugitive Slave Act in action.
Recapture of Runaways
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.
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.