Skip to content

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

The heartbreaking history of slaves in the United States includes some tumultuous times before the eventual change in laws post-Civil War which required all men—no matter the color of their skin—to be equal. The tumultuous times prior to Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves included different rules, laws and articles in the constitution which took away any and all rights for slaves.

One such act, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, came about to enforce parts of the Constitution which demanded runaway slaves to be returned to their owner, as noted by U.S. History.org. Slaves would runaway to the free states in hopes of a new life, only to be sadly captured and returned to the incredibly rough life they were fleeing.

Certain jurisdictions in the free states of the North didn’t agree with the strict code of the Fugitive Slave Act, as covered by the Encyclopedia Britannia. For instance, Massachusetts initiated personal liberty laws to help add an extra layer of protection to slaves who made it to the North on their own or later via the underground railroad to not have to be sent back. These laws found ways to help ensure slaves had a fair trial with a jury before being sent back to their owners. Similar laws were also passed in other free states like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire to help governing bodies not have to enforce the law in various ways.

The fugitive slave law was of course unjust and unfair for a multitude of reasons. One reason in particular was the outright lies told by slaveowners. They would arrive in the free states and claim men whether they were escaped slaves or previously freed. The problem was that this law left no defense for the accused. If a slaveowner claimed you had run away, you were sent back with that slaveowner, no questions asked. This incredibly unjust system very much goes against the idea of a fair trial and was the reason for increased momentum in civil rights.

The clear disregard for any alleged fugitive’s rights became more and more evident after the act of 1793. For the next fifty years, hundreds of escaped slaves were captured and returned each year while states fought back and forth over what to do with escaped slaves. To help uphold the similar act from 1793, the government passed a revised act in 1850, which not only sent slaves back to their owners—whether they were in a free state or not—but also gave power to the government to proceed with the return of runaway slaves

This escalation in searching out escaped slaves added more fuel to the free states’ fire to do something about the atrocious treatment of slaves. The years between the law and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 were rife with strong feelings and actions on both sides. The Southern states continued to use brute force with so-called escaped slaves, and abolitionists continued to fight for their cause with the underground railroad helping out immensely.

In response to the Fugitive Slave Law and the increasingly negative treatment of slaves, abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe did her part by writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” about the feelings and treatment from the point of view of a fictional slave called Uncle Tom. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had a large part in helping raise awareness of what was going on. The uprising came to a head during the American Civil War, which finally led to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Acts being abolished in 1865. This tumultuous history which resulted in the freeing of slaves from all states is something that will never be forgotten. It shows the incredible outcome that can occur when a group of people feel that civil and human rights should be upheld for everyone.