Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

From Ohio History Central
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This group of freedom seekers 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 Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850. This law required the United States government to actively assist slave holders in recapturing freedom seekers. Under the United States Constitution, slave holders 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 holders. 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 African Americans 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 holders. Anyone caught hiding or assisting freedom seekers faced stiff penalties. United States marshals had to actively seek freedom seekers and return them to their holders. If a marshal refused, the federal government would fine the officer $1,000. 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 holder 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 forced into 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 this 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 freedom seeker and attempted to return him to the South. Oberlin and Wellington residents helped the freedom seekers 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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