Fugitive Slave Law

In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. Only John P. Hale, Charles Sumner, Salmon Chase and Benjamin Wade voted against the measure. The law stated that in future any federal marshal who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1,000. People suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested without warrant and turned over to a claimant on nothing more than his sworn testimony of ownership. A suspected black slave could not ask for a jury trial nor testify on his or her behalf.

Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance was liable to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Those officers capturing a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee and this encouraged some officers to kidnap free Negroes and sell them to slave-owners. Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier led the fight against the law. Even moderate anti-slavery leaders such as Arthur Tappan declared he was now willing to disobey the law and as result helped fund the Underground Railroad.

Primary Sources

(1) Frederick Douglass, speech on the Fugitive Slave Law (1850)

Under this law the oaths of any two villains (the capturer and the claimant) are sufficient to confine a free man to slavery for life.

(2) Solomon Northup was a free black man who was arrested by James H. Burch, a slave-dealer from Washington.

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square - the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

An iron-bound door led into an adjoining cell, or vault, wholly destitute of windows, or any means of admitting light. The furniture of the room in which I was, consisted of the wooden bench on which I sat, an old-fashioned, dirty box stove, and besides these, in either cell, there was neither bed, nor blanket, nor any other thing whatever. The door, through which Burch and Radburn entered, led through a small passage, up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high, immediately in rear of a building of the same width as itself.

"Well, my boy, how do you feel now?" said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave - that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman - a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free, and with an emphatic oath, declared that I came from Georgia. Again and again I asserted I was no man's slave, and insisted upon his taking off my chains at once. He endeavored to hush me, as if he feared my voice would be overheard. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains.

(3) Moses Grandy, Life of a Slave (1843)

Our untiring friends, the abolitionists, once obtained a law that no coloured person should be seized as a slave within the free states; this law would have been of great service to us, by ridding us of all anxiety about our freedom while we remained there; but I am sorry to say, that it has lately been repealed, and that now, as before, any coloured person who is said to be a slave, may be seized in the free states and carried away, no matter how long he may have resided there, as also may his children and their children, although they all may have been born there. I hope this law will soon be altered again.

At present, many escaped slaves are forwarded by their friends to Canada where, under British rule, they are quite safe. There is a body of ten thousand of them in Upper Canada; they are known for their good order, and loyalty to the British government; during the late troubles, they could always be relied on for the defence of the British possessions, against the lawless Americans who attempted to invade them.

(4) After escaping from slavery Isaac Mason moved to Philadelphia where he became a hod carrier. He married but was forced to leave after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act.

I went to Philadelphia where I thought safety would be best secured. I worked there as a hod carrier. I had not been long settled before the Fugitive Slave Law came into full force. One day while climbing the ladder with a hod of bricks on my shoulder, I looked down at the passers by, which was not an uncommon thing to do, and who should I see but the son of the man Wallace. His business was soon found out and made known. He was searching for his runaway slaves, of whom I was one. I was advised to make my way into Massachusetts, and that without much delay. "O the terror and curse of Slavery!" We sold what we could, and what we could not dispose of had to be given away.

I had a letter of recommendation given to me, which I was to present to a Mr. Gibbs, of New York City, on my arrival there, enroute for Boston. He was a worker in the Underground Railroad scheme, and was a colored man. We left Philadelphia by boat, and had a pleasant sail to New York.