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A Historian Explains the Significance of the Fugitive Slave Act

Historian Eric Foner explains why the Fugitive Slave Act was such a divisive political act and a turning point in the sectional conflicts that had plagued American society during the antebellum era. Foner also describes the role of former slaves in shaping the abolitionist movement.

The issue of fugitive slaves in a sense became one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of the Abolitionist Movement. The Constitution has a clause stating that fugitives from labor [slaves] must be sent back to the South if captured in the North. And this gave slavery what we call extra-territoriality. That is, it made slavery a national institution. Even though the northern states could abolish slavery, as they did, they still could not avoid their Constitutional obligation to enforce the slave laws of the southern states. A fugitive slave carried with him the legal status of slavery, even into a territory which didn't have slavery. 

Now, many of the states didn't do much about this. And that's why the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was enacted, which made the federal government responsible for tracking down and apprehending fugitive slaves in the North, and sending them back to the South. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, you might say, was the most powerful exercise of federal authority within the United States in the whole era before the Civil War. 

And it's a very odd thing that a region, the South, which supposedly believed in states' rights and local autonomy, pressed for this law which allowed the federal government to completely override the legal processes in the North: to send marshals in, to avoid the local courts, and to just seize people (they might be free born) and just drag them into the South as slaves. It shows that the South didn't believe in states' rights. It believed in slavery. States' rights was a defense of slavery. But when active federal power was needed to defend slavery, they were perfectly happy to utilize that also. 

The Fugitive Slave Law had many features which seemed to violate the liberties of free white northerners. It allowed the federal government to deputize citizens, even against their will, and force them to take part in posses or other groups to seize fugitive slaves. It also said that local courts could not adjudicate whether a person was a slave or not. It was federal commissioners who would come in and hear testimony. And the slave was not allowed to testify. It was the testimony of the owner, or the person who claimed to be the owner, of this alleged fugitive. And the commissioner would judge whether the owner's testimony was believable or not, and then send -- as they usually did -- the person back to slavery. So the Fugitive Slave Law was a very powerful instrument. It was utilized to gather up quite a few slaves, escaped slaves, or perhaps people who weren't slaves at all, who were free born, and send them back to the South. 

Another thing is that it inspired quite a few thousand free Negroes in the North to flee to Canada. We usually think of the United States as an asylum for liberty, of people fleeing oppression elsewhere in the world to come to the United States. It's a little jarring to remember that there were thousands of free born Americans who fled to Canada because their freedom could no longer be taken for granted within the United States. 

Fugitive slaves had a tremendous impact on the development of the anti-slavery movement. First of all, a number of fugitives became very prominent abolitionist leaders and speakers. The most famous is Frederick Douglass, who escaped from Maryland. But there were quite a few others, [including] Henry Highland Garnet. They were living embodiments of the reality of slavery. When Douglass got up and talked about his life as a slave, it was hard to dismiss him as just a do-good-ing northern liberal who really didn't understand the situation in the South, as many southerners would claim. These are people who had experienced slavery firsthand. 

But then the whole process of, under the Fugitive Slave Law, of the federal government seizing people galvanized opinion in the North in a way that the abstract question of slavery may not have done. You could think what you wanted about slavery hundreds of miles away, but when a individual comes to your community, a black individual fleeing marshals who are going to try to grab him and send him back to slavery, it puts slavery on a human level. It made people have to choose, am I going to abide by the law, or am I going to help this fellow human being who's in trouble? And many people who were not abolitionists at all felt they could not cooperate with the Fugitive Slave Law. And often it was violently resisted by people who were otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Source | Eric Foner, "Eric Foner on the Fugitive Slave Act," 1998, from PBS's Africans in America,
Creator | Eric Foner
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | Eric Foner, “A Historian Explains the Significance of the Fugitive Slave Act,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 27, 2023,

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