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Fugitive Slave Act

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Fugitive Slave Act

Escaping slavery was an extremely dangerous undertaking and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 only increased the risk.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Definition

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, was a federal law that expanded upon the earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Both Fugitive Slave Acts attempted to make it easier for slaveholders to catch slaves that had escaped to the North, but the new Fugitive Slave Act took it even farther.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 put the responsibility on slaveholders (and the agents they hired) to find slaves that had escaped as well as to prove their case in court. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 shifted this responsibility to the federal government.

Now, federal marshals took on the responsibility of finding slaves that had escaped to the North. Additionally, those who were captured no longer had the right to a jury trial. Instead, newly appointed federal commissioners made the decision as to whether they would return or free a suspected slave. It was not an honest process as federal commissioners were paid more to grant certificates returning suspected slaves.

Lastly, the penalty for someone helping individuals escape slavery increased from a $500 fine to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. This was intended to curb the growing abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad

a complex network of routes and safe houses that enslaved people used to escape to freedom with the help of guides called conductors

The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act

The Compromise of 1850 settled the debate over the status of slavery in several newly acquired territories.

Northern Wins

Southern Wins

California entered the Union as a free state

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed

Nevada and Utah were able to choose the status of slavery

Congress declared it did not have power over the interstate slave trade

Slave trade was eliminated in Washinton DC

Slavery remained legal in Washington DC

The South had been long unhappy with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. They believed that people in the North were not doing enough to help with the perceived issue of runaway slaves–the existence of the Underground Railroad was proof enough. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was an attempt to strengthen pre-existing provisions and ensure federal assistance.

Fugitive Slave Act Advertisement StudySmarterAn advertisement offering a reward for helping catch slaves,

Constitutional Foundations of the Fugitive Slave Act

Article VI of the Constitution included a provision that slaves would not become legally free as a result of escaping to another state:

No Person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law of Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labor, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labor may be due."

As you can see, the Constitution itself did not provide means for enforcement. The Fugitive Slave Acts were meant to address the logistical issues.

Northern Reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act

Residents of the North were less than happy with the Fugitive Slave Acts. When the first Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1793, personal liberty laws began to pop up across the North. These laws had to become more creative when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed but they certainly did not disappear. Some states even made moves to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act itself.

personal liberty laws

laws designed to protect people accused of being escaped slaves

As we discussed earlier, many Northerners braved the consequences and continued to help those running from slavery along the Underground Railroad. Their indignation at the South for the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made them even less willing to quit and the number of abolitionists only grew.

Effects of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Fugitive Slave Act Warning Poster StudySmarterA poster cautioning black people living in Boston,

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a devastating blow to slaves and free blacks alike. Although the Underground Railroad was still operating, it was dangerous, and formerly enslaved people were not always safe even after reaching their destination. Kidnapping was a very real threat, even when living an established life as a free person.


As we discussed earlier, federal commissioners received a larger payment if they granted a certificate approving the return of a slave. Some slaveholders saw the opportunity to take advantage of a corrupt system by kidnapping black people and pretending they had escaped from slavery.

Although the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act included, was meant to settle the issue of slavery, tensions only grew between the North and the South. More territory entered the Union reheating the slavery issue and the North continued to flout aspects of, if not the entire, Fugitive Slave Act.

The Fugitive Slave Act Significance

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 remained in effect well into the Civil War as a means of appealing border states. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, The Fugitive Slave Act applied to slaves living in these border states. It was not until 1864 that the Fugitive Slave Act was finally repealed.

The Emancipation Proclamation

an executive order that freed all slaves in Confederate territory

The Fugitive Slave Act is significant because of the role it played in fueling the abolitionist movement and the conflict it caused between the North and South. It is a perfect example of the tension surrounding slavery and how this tension grew to Civil War proportions.

Did you know? The Fugitive Slave Act inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most influential anti-slavery works of its time.

Fugitive Slave Act - Key takeaways

  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 expanded upon the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and shifted the responsibility of capturing and returning runaway slaves to the federal government.
  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 included harsher legal consequences for citizens who assisted escaped slaves, but it had the unintentional effect of actually fueling the abolitionist movement.
  • The North was very unhappy with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and state governments enacted personal liberty laws to protect accused runaways. The Underground Railroad only expanded.
  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was repealed in 1864, well into the Civil War.

Frequently Asked Questions about Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act was a federal law that set the guidelines for finding and returning slaves that had escaped to the North. It also set consequences for Northern residents who assisted runaways. 

The first Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1793 and the second Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 enlisted federal marshals and Northern citizens in helping find escaped slaves. Federal commissioners would decide whether to grant a certificate allowing the return of a suspected slave. They were paid more if they granted this certificate. Northern citizens faced consequences for assisting runaway slaves. 

The Fugitive Slave Act set legal consequences for Northern residents who aided the Underground Railroad. However, the Underground Railroad only grew in size as the Fugitive Slave Act angered the North and increased the number of abolitionists. 

The Fugitive Slave Act put slaves hoping to escape in an even more dangerous situation and led to the kidnapping of free blacks. It also increased tensions between the North and the South in the lead up to the Civil War.

Final Fugitive Slave Act Quiz


When was the first Fugitive Slave Act passed?

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When was the second Fugitive Slave Act passed?

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Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, what were the two consequences for assisting escaped slaves?

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$1,000 fine

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Were federal commissioners paid more for freeing or returning a suspected slave?

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What compromise created the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850?

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The Missouri Compromise

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How did Article IV of the Constitution support the Fugitive Slave Act?

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It stated that slaves could not gain freedom by leaving the state of their servitude. 

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What is the term for the laws that governments in the North passed to protect suspected slaves?

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personal liberty laws

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Did the Underground Railroad grow or shrink as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act?

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Why did the kidnapping of free blacks become a problem after the Fugitive Slave Act?

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Federal commissioners were paid more to return slaves. 

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When was the Fugitive Slave Act repealed?

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