Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

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Fugitive Slaves.jpg
This group of fugitive slaves escaped to freedom in Canada on the Underground Railroad and took up residence in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Their names are listed from left to right as, back row: Mrs. Hunt, Mansfield Smith, Mrs. Seymour; front row: Stevenson, Johnson. The image was collected by Ohio State University professor Wilbur H. Siebert (1866-1961). Siebert began researching the Underground Railroad in

the 1890s as a way to interest his students in history.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850. This law required the United States government to actively assist slave owners in recapturing fugitive slaves. Under the United States Constitution, slave owners had the right to reclaim slaves who ran away to free states. With the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the federal government had to assist the slave owners. No such requirement had existed previously.

Northern abolitionists opposed this law. While the United States Congress debated the legislation, some legislators tried to insert protections into the bill for African Americans. They wanted the Fugitive Slave Law to guarantee blacks the right to testify and also the right to a trial by jury. Other legislators refused and claimed that African Americans were not United States citizens.

The Fugitive Slave Law clearly favored the slave owners. Anyone caught hiding or assisting fugitive slaves faced stiff penalties. United States marshals had to actively seek fugitives from slavery and return them to their owners. If a marshal refused, the federal government would fine the officer one thousand dollars. African Americans could not present evidence to a federal commissioner appointed to hear a case and determine an African American's status as a slave or free person. The slave owner was responsible for paying the commissioner. If the commissioner ruled in favor of the white man, the commissioner received ten dollars. If he ruled against the slaveholder, the commissioner earned only five dollars. Many abolitionists claimed that this portion of the Fugitive Slave Law was a means to bribe the commissioners.

Between 1850 and 1860, 343 African Americans appeared before federal commissioners. Of those 343 people, 332 African Americans were sent to slavery in the South. The commissioners allowed only eleven people to remain free in the North. Thousands of African Americans fled to Canada. Some people who had been free for their entire lives left the country. Abolitionists challenged the Fugitive Slave Law's legality in court, but the United States Supreme Court upheld the law's constitutionality in 1859.

Ohio abolitionists also opposed the Fugitive Slave Law. They encouraged people to oppose any attempts to enforce it and referred to the legislation as the "Kidnap Law." As in other parts of the United States, some African Americans in Ohio fled to Canada.

On a few occasions, Ohioans physically impeded the Fugitive Slave Law's enforcement. An example of this was the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue Case in 1858. A federal marshal captured a fugitive slave and attempted to return him to the South. Oberlin and Wellington residents helped the fugitive slaves escape once again. Thirty-seven people were indicted for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Only two of the accused were convicted and served any time in jail.

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