The Fugitive Slave Act Passed by, the Senate and House of Representatives September 12, 1850 & Approved by, President Millard Fillmore September 18, 1850

Source: The Fugitive Slave Act, East Carolina Manuscript Collection MB0001 (Miscellaneous Broadsides)

The Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act

Staff Person: Lynette Lundin


In the 1840’s the Underground Railroad was very busy due to the 1842 Supreme Court ruling of “Prigg” v. “Pennsylvania,” which held that states could pass laws prohibiting interference with runaway slaves.

This era ended when Congress passed The Compromise of 1850, which was a chain of bills whose purpose was to stabilize territorial and slavery issues. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was the fourth of five laws used to placate the South, giving slave owners immense powers to retrieve their escaped slaves. This version required federal judicial officials to execute warrants in ALL States and territories, even that prohibited slavery. For instance, section 5 of the act states, “be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any marshal or deputy refuse to receive such warrant or other process, when tendered, or use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall on conviction thereof, be fined the sum of ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS….” The law also mandated ordinary citizens to help slave catchers: ALL GOOD CITIZENS ARE HEREBY COMMANDED TO AID AND ASSIST…”

In addition, any person helping a runaway slave could be imprisoned and fined: “any person who shall knowingly or willingly obstruct, hinder or prevent such claimant,…DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY TO ESCAPE from claimant…, or SHALL HARBOR or CONCEAL such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person,…, shall, for either of said offences be subject to a fine not exceeding ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS and IMPRISONMENT NOT EXCEEDING SIX MONTHS….

This law was pro-slavery; it gave controlling force to the Southern states and slave owners. It was passed to help settle the turmoil between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions, but it only postponed the inevitable Civil War.

This broadside can be found in Manuscript Collection MB0001 (Miscellaneous Broadsides).

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