Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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Running for Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Law and the Coming of the Civil War

This activity compares a runaway slave ad and an abolitionist poster to explore the causes and effects of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. The law changed how many northerners viewed slavery and intensified conflicts that brought the nation closer to Civil War.


  • Students will determine how slaves, through their actions, challenged the authority of slave owners and the legitimacy of slavery.

  • Students will review Constitutional conflicts over individual liberty versus property rights, including the Fugitive Slave Law.

  • Students will analyze the effect of the Fugitive Slave Law for strengthening the abolitionist movement by involving northerners in the enforcement of a slave system they did not support.  


Step 1: Display or handout the timeline of compromises over slavery and discuss the following points:

  • There had been conflict between slavery and freedom since the beginning of the republic

  • The meaning of the phrase "secure the Blessings of Liberty" to Americans in the 1790s

Step 2: Hand out the documents "Runaway Slave Advertisement from Antebellum Virginia" and "Caution!" poster warning runaway slaves of slave catchers, with either analysis worksheets (two) or focus questions worksheet.  Allow students to work with a partner to read and analyze the documents (including the descriptions), and, if using the focus questions worksheet, respond to Part I.  

Step 3: After students (or pairs) have analyzed the documents and completed Part I, they should partner with another student (or pair) to discuss Part II of the focus questions worksheet together.  

Step 4: Ask students to individually write a response to the question "How did people in the North and South resist slavery?"  After students are done writing, ask a few to read aloud what they wrote.  

Historical Context

With the Compromise of 1850, the North and South avoided--or more accurately, delayed--a struggle that threatened to rip the Union apart. The Compromise included a Fugitive Slave Law, which empowered the federal government to prosecute northern whites who shielded runaways. Bounty hunters sometimes wrongfully seized free blacks born in the North as escaped slaves. In response black Americans and their white allies used force to protect fugitive slaves, sometimes attacking or even killing their pursuers. Conflicts sparked by the Fugitive Slave Law also infuriated southern slaveholders, who believed that the federal government was failing to keep northern abolitionists in check.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2009.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Running for Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Law and the Coming of the Civil War,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 22, 2023,

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