Explaining The Fugitive Slave Act

The other day I mentioned that I enjoy presenting my students with examples that highlight the complexity of race in American history.  They are shocked to learn that Marth Washington’s personal servant is also her half-sister or that Sally Hemmings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife.

One of my favorite historical periods to teach is the twelve year between the end of the Mexican-American War and Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860.  Students get to think about the all-important issue of slavery and race along with a barrage of important events and colorful personalities.  One of those significant events is the Compromise of 1850 and the inclusion of a new and stronger Fugitive Slave Act.  I try to bring out the significance of this piece of the compromise beyond simply saying that it provided a means for Southern slaveholders to retrieve their property from Northern states.  Plate9_1 More importantly, however, the Fugitive Slave Act can be used in the classroom to explore the complexity of race in 19th Century America.  In doing so I use a relatively obscure book titled The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War: A New Look At The Slavery Issue by Lawrence Tenzer.  The book was published back in 1997 by Scholars’ Publishing House which is located in Manahawkin, New Jersey.  I met the author through my father at about this time; we corresponded for a bit, but unfortunately we lost touch.  Tenzer essentially argues that the Civil War can be explained through a careful analysis of Northern fears that they themselves would become enslaved at some point.  There are some problems with the book, including points of interpretation that are questionable.  And the writing style sometimes loses its analytical edge.  Here is a review by Earl J. Hess which appeared in the Lincoln Herald, which should give you a sense of the book’s overall scope. 

First, it is important to acknowledge the means by which Southerners were able to carry this out:

The new law was designed to address the shortcomings of the previous 1793 legislation.  To begin with, a mere affidavit from the claimant or his agent even if given in absentia was now sufficient to establish title to an alleged runaway slave.  The weakest ex parte evidence was considered enough to convict.  Once captured, those claimed to be the fugitive being sought were not allowed to speak at all in their behalf and were denied legal representation.  Neither a jury trial nor a formal hearing of any kind was permitted.  Specially appointed federal commissioners were directed to attend to cases "in a summary manner."  Moreover, these officials had authority to issue certificates which would instantly place the black or mulatto into slavery without any due process whatsoever.  Commissioners received ten dollars (in 1850s dollars) for issuing the certificate authorizing immediate enslavement and only five dollars for the paperwork to set the captive free. [The Forgotten Cause of the Civil War by Lawrence Tenzer) 

I remind my students that it is the federal government which operates within the states with full compliance from local authorities to retrieve suspected fugitives.  This is important because what we essentially have here is a case of Southerners pushing for the strong arm of the federal government as opposed to a states rights argument.  Somehow we’ve come to believe that white Southerners were born attached to this argument.  In fact, in reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act some Northern states passed Personal Liberty Laws which essentially stated that they did not have to comply with this federal law – a case of Northerners utilizing the states rights argument. 

What I found to be the most interesting aspect of the book was Tenzer’s analysis of the threat the Fugitive Slave Act posed to free blacks, mulatto’s and whites:

Imagine yourself in this scenario: A free black or a free mulatto, who has been living in your community in the North for years in peace, and who is known by the community at large to be law-abiding and decent, is mistaken for a slave being sought.  One-sided word-of-mouth evidence is presented to a commissioner and the order goes out for the immediate capture of the long-time fugitive.  A circumstance arises whereby a marshall or deputy seeks to enlist your assistance to aid in the capture, and you refuse.  By not cooperating when legally required to do so, you would be subject to a $1,000 fine.  If you complied, you were turned into a slave catcher on the free soil of your own state!  No wonder this law was so unpopular.  Slavery could no longer be looked at from afar. The North was now involved. (p. 84)

It is possible to take Tenzer’s scenario one step further to suggest that even white Northerners with dark complexions stood to be "kidnapped" if they happen to fit a slave-catcher’s description.  What I find interesting is the way Tenzer’s example challenges our preconceptions of race and color.  It forces us to imagine a population that can no longer be strictly defined along the color line owing to generations of interracial sexual contact.  Congressman Amos P. Granger raises this possibility in an 1856 speech:

In defiance of at least three positive provisions of the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Law grabs somebody, black or white, for it makes no distinction of color–demands of him a life’s labor–suspends "the privilege of the writ of habeus corpus"–denies him "trial by jury"–and "deprives him of liberty without due process of law" and works him, or whips him, or sells him, as it likes. (p. 95)

I don’t agree with Tenzer that the Compromise of 1850 and, more specifically, the Fugitive Slave Act constituted the "beginning of the end" in the lead up to war, but I do agree that the issues involved are significant and make for some interesting discussions in the classroom.

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6 comments… add one
  • Kristen Nov 29, 2006 @ 16:58
  • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2006 @ 16:30

    Hi Kristen, — I’ve also used _Taking Sides_ before in my classes. It’s a dynamite series and perfect for giving students a chance to see the outlines of important debates.

  • Kristen Nov 29, 2006 @ 15:44

    This is also my favorite time period to teach! A portion of my MA thesis dealt with how the Secret Six responded to the FSL, so I spend time talking with my students about the FSL and its implications for Northerners. And, we just finished reading a selection from a book called _Taking Sides_, a student reader that includes an excerpt from _The Political Crisis of the 1850s_. Its great stuff!

  • elektratig Nov 21, 2006 @ 17:12


    Both fugitive slave acts are very interesting from a constitutional perspective. For some thoughts on just how dangerous a game the south was playing, see my post at http://elektratig.blogspot.com/2006/10/fugitive-slave-acts.html .

  • Kevin Levin Nov 21, 2006 @ 15:33

    Stephen, — Thanks for the positive feedback re: this post. You are absolutely right that this sounds a bit like what Holt addresses in _The Fate Of Their Country_;if you want a more detailed account see his earlier study, _The Political Crisis of the 1850’s_.

  • Stephen Keating Nov 21, 2006 @ 14:49


    I found this whole post to be very interesting and in line, in a way with Michael Holt’s “The Fate of Their Nation”, namely the shifting stance of people on both sides of the issue. Whether Democrat, Whig, Northerner or Southerner, pro- or anti-slavery, the particular situation and conditions could cause a seemingly odd reversal of what people stood for. All of this tends to demonsrate just how complicated the issues where, and the motivations that led to war.

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