High School Unit I

Lesson D: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: A Case Study of Resistance

Key Questions

  1. What did African Americans and sympathetic whites do to try and end southern slavery?
  2. How did the Fugitive Slave Act contribute to escalating tensions between slave and free states?
  3. How did people in Massachusetts respond to the Fugitive Slave Act?
  4. What is civil disobedience? When is it used?

Primary Sources

Document HS I-15: Southern Slave Holders Dictate to the North: Sections of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Document HS I-15: Southern Slave Holders Dictate to the North: Sections of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 admitted California to the Union as a free state, abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and allowed New Mexico and Utah territories were to decide the issue for themselves upon admission to the Union. As part of the compromise, Congress strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, in effect since 1793, greatly increasing the risks faced by fugitive slaves and free blacks and compelling whites to assist slave catchers or face legal penalties. The first sections of the law empowered federal commissioners to hear fugitive slave cases, which had formerly been tried in state courts.

Note: Words or phrases in italics surrounded by brackets have been added to clarify the text. They are not part of the original document.

Section 4

And be it further enacted, That the commissioners … shall grant certificates to such claimants, upon satisfactory proof being made, with authority to take and remove such fugitives from service or labor, under the restrictions herein contained, to the State or Territory from which such persons may have escaped or fled.

Section 5

And 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 marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars[1]…and after arrest of such fugitive, by such marshal or his deputy, or whilst at any time in his custody under the provisions of this act, should such fugitive escape, whether with or without the assent of such marshal or his deputy, such marshal shall be liable, on his official bond, to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant, for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive in the State, Territory, or District whence he escaped…. such commissioners, or the persons to be appointed by them, [in order] to execute process as aforesaid, [shall have the right] to summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse … and all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required…

Section 6

And be it further enacted, That when a person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the United States, has heretofore or shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due [i.e. the slave owner], or his, her, or their agent or attorney, duly authorized… may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person, either by procuring a warrant from some one of the courts, judges, or commissioners aforesaid, of the proper circuit, district, or county, for the apprehension of such fugitive from service or labor, or by seizing and arresting such fugitive, where the same can be done without process, and by taking, or causing such person to be taken, forthwith before such court, judge, or commissioner, whose duty it shall be to hear and determine the case of such claimant in a summary manner… [the claimant must prove with an affidavit] the identity of the person whose service or labor is claimed to be due [i.e. the person who they claim is their slave] as aforesaid, that the person so arrested does in fact owe service or labor to the person or persons claiming him or her, in the State or Territory from which such fugitive may have escaped … [the claimant may] use such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary, under the circumstances of the case, to take and remove such fugitive person back to the State or Territory whence he or she may have escaped as aforesaid. In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the … [affidavits provided] shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.

Section 7

And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant… or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested… or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant… or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars,[2] and imprisonment not exceeding six months … and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost …

Section 8

And be it further enacted, That the marshals, their deputies, and the clerks of the said District and Territorial Courts, shall be paid, for their services … he shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars[3]in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where the proof shall not [be enough to send the person back into slavery]…

Section 9

And be it further enacted, That, upon affidavit made by the claimant [i.e. the slave owner] of such fugitive…[if a marshal] has reason to apprehend that such fugitive will he rescued by force from his or their possession before he can be taken beyond the limits of the State in which the arrest is made, it shall be the duty of the officer making the arrest to retain such fugitive in his custody, and to remove him to the State whence he fled, and there to deliver him to said claimant…. And to this end, the officer aforesaid is hereby authorized and required to employ so many persons as he may deem necessary to overcome such force, and to retain them in his service so long as circumstances may require. The said officer and his assistants, while so employed, to receive the same compensation, and to be allowed the same expenses, as are now allowed by law for transportation of criminals, to be certified by the judge of the district within which the arrest is made, and paid out of the treasury of the United States.

Approved, September 18, 1850.

Full text is available online.

 

Questions:

Section 4:

1. What were the new commissioners allowed to do?

2. Why did this Act establish a separate quasi-judicial system for returning fugitive slaves to bondage?

Section 5:

1. What were the marshal’s responsibilities?

Section 6:

1. How did a slave owner go about claiming his or her runaway slave?

2. What kind of evidence could and could not be presented to these special commissioners?

Section 7:

1. What is the purpose of this section of the law?

2. What does the inclusion of these criminal and civil fines tell us about the way people in the North had treated fugitive slaves?

Section 8:

1. Would the marshal be paid the same fee whether or not the captured person was “proven” to be an escaped slave? Why or why not?

Section 9:

1. What situations did Section 9 address?

2. What does the inclusion of this section tell us about the lawmakers’ sense of the mood in the northern states?

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Document HS I-16: “Highhanded Outrage in a Court of Justice”: An Account of the Escape of Shadrach Minkins

Document HS I-16: “Highhanded Outrage in a Court of Justice”: An Account of the Escape of Shadrach Minkins

THE ARREST AND RESCUE OF A FUGITIVE SLAVE—

HIGHHANDED OUTRAGE IN A COURT OF JUSTICE

The city of Boston was on Saturday last disgraced by one of the most lawless and atrocious acts that ever blackened the character of any community pretending to be in the enjoyment of an enlightened state of civilization. A band of two hundred negroes violently entered a Court of Justice, and by force carried from the custody of the officers a person arrested agreeable to an established law of the nation. The act is a burning disgrace not only to the city, but to the Commonwealth, and indeed to the whole Union; for it was a Court of the United States which was thus treasonably invaded, and its statutes and power put openly and insultingly at defiance. It was a disgrace to the city that the Mayor took no interest in a riot which occurred in a building belonging to the city, and refused his aid in suppressing proceedings which, had the officers performed a simple and unquestionable duty, would have resulted in a sanguinary conflict; for the rioters were supplied with arms and were determined to use them against all who obstructed them in their law defying course. It was a disgrace to the Commonwealth, as no provision had been made for the detention of prisoners arrested under a law for which a majority of its Representatives in the United States Congress had recorded their votes. And it was a disgrace to the Union itself, in that the Naval officer commanding this station declined to furnish the necessary aid to enforce a national law. Looking at it in every aspect, we can regard it as nothing but a complete triumph over law and order, by a band of black ruffians, countenanced and encouraged by a batch of white rioters—legal, religious, philanthropical, and fanatical—for whom hanging would be too lenient punishment. It is a blow at the supremacy of justice, at the dignity, power and glory of the Union—and exhibits to other countries, the ease with which a law of the “Model Republic” can be set at naught by any gang of determined scoundrels who object to its enforcement. It has indicated the predominancy of Negrodom in the Athens of America [Boston], ...The officers in the court room probably did all they could under the circumstances, although some persons are ungenerous enough to think that the odor of a little gun powder would not have proved very annoying to the nostrils of Justice, had the incense been offered up. But Shadrach has gone....

Boston Daily Times and Bay State Democrat, Monday, February, 17, 1851.

Questions:

  1. What position did the Boston Daily Times take regarding the Shadrach Minkins incident?
  2. At what point in the account does the paper'seditorial stand become clear?
  3. Identify specific words and phrases that indicate the slant of the paper. 
  4. According to the Boston Daily Times, what happened in the courthouse?
  5. What appears to have been the response of several other officials indirectly involved (for example, the mayor, the “Commonwealth,” a Naval officer)?
  6. What did the Boston Daily Times suggest would be the consequences of the rescue?
  7. Is this a news report? An editorial? How would you describe it?
  8. What does this article tell you about the incident itself?
  9. What have you learned about the range of responses to the rescue of Shadrach Minkins? 
  10. What questions does this document raise and where might you find answers?
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Document HS I-17: “No Union with Slave Holders!”: Excerpts from The Liberator, February 21, 1851

Document HS I-17: “No Union with Slave Holders!”: Excerpts from The Liberator, February 21, 1851

In the succeeding columns, we give an account of the arrest, rescue and flight of a slave in this city, on Saturday last—

Stated in the briefest form, what are the facts in the case? The Deputy U.S. Marshal with two or three base confederates seizes an inoffensive colored man, guiltless of any crime against the laws of God or the well-being of society, in a manner the most sneaking, treacherous and dastardly,—in a manner which shows how conscious the villains were that they were engaged in the work of the devil,—and yet in a manner in exact accordance with the spirit and object of the accursed Fugitive Slave Law,—on the charge of his being a fugitive from the chains and scourges of the Southerner house of bondage, hurried without a moment’s warning before Commissioner Curtis….

The victim, through his counsel, intercedes for a little delay, in order that he may be enabled to meet his accusers in the best legal manner possible. This is granted, and the case stands adjourned to a subsequent day. At this moment the door of the court room is pressed open by a crowd of sympathizing colored persons, who, without any deliberate concert—without any weapons in their hands—without any wish or intention to do personal violence to anyone—but operated upon by a sudden electric thrill, such as the emergency was well calculated to produce, seize their doomed brother, almost unresistingly, and in the twinkling of an eye hurried him out of the room, and soon placed him beyond the reach of his pursuers.

In the rush, a few of the officers may have been jostled, but no one was injured, no blow appears to have been given by the invading forces, no scar was made, no blood was drawn. It was as peaceful a rescue as was ever made in any case of physical interference. The rescuers were not actuated by a lawless spirit, but by a deep and commendable sympathy with a wronged and outraged man, in imminent danger of being dehumanized for life—by a love of liberty—by a clear appreciation of justice—by the spirit of the revolutionary motto, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.

They apprehended that Shadrach was one who had fled from the hell of slavery, that, legally, there was no power to save him from being carried back to torture, that, in all probability, unless he was rescued just at that precise moment, his fate was sealed for ever; and as the opportunity to take him without a serious struggle was extremely favorable, they seized upon it with a wise judgment, and with entire success. Thank God, Shadrach is free—and not only free, but safe! Under the banner of England, on the Canadian soil, he is now standing erect, redeemed and disenthralled, bidding a proud defiance to President Fillmore and his cabinet, though backed by the army and navy of the United States! . . .

We defy the Fugitive Slave Bill, its framers and upholders, together with the devil and his works. Freedom for all, and forever!

Questions:

  1. What position did The Liberator take regarding the Shadrach Minkins incident?
  1. At what point in the account does their editorial stand become clear?
  1. What have you learned from this article about the incident itself?
  1. What motivated the rescuers?
  1. What have you learned about the range of responses in the press to the rescue of Shadrach Minkins?
  1. What questions does this document raise and where might you find answers?
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Document HS I-18: Abolitionists Spread the Word: “Kidnapped” Poster, May 26, 1854

Document HS I-18: Abolitionists Spread the Word: “Kidnapped” Poster, May 26, 1854

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Document HS I-19: Arrest in Boston: Anthony Burns Broadside

Document HS I-19: Arrest in Boston: Anthony Burns Broadside

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Document HS I-20: "Worthy of Liberty": Excerpts from Speeches at Faneuil Hall, May 26, 1854.

Document HS I-20: "Worthy of Liberty": Excerpts from Speeches at Faneuil Hall, May 26, 1854.

A crowd of 5,000 gathered at Faneuil Hall the evening after Anthony Burns was arrested and taken to the federal courthouse. One of Boston's leading abolitionists, Wendell Phillips, spoke first:

See to it, every one of you, as you love the honor of Boston, that you watch this case so closely that you can look into that man's eyes. When he comes up for trial get a sight of him – and don't lose sight of him. There is nothing like the mute eloquence of a suffering man to urge to duty; be there, and I will trust the result. If Boston streets are to be so often desecrated by the sight of returning fugitives, let us be there, that we may tell our children that we saw it done.... Let us prove that we are worthy of liberty.

Reverend Theodore Parker followed:

A deed which Virginia commands has been done in the city of John Hancock and the '"brace of Adamses." It was done by a Boston hand. It was a Boston man who issued the [arrest] warrant; it was a Boston Marshal who put it in execution; they are Boston men who are seeking to kidnap a citizen of Massachusetts, and send him into slavery for ever and ever. It is our fault that it is so... I have heard hurrahs and cheers for liberty many times; I have not seen a great many deeds done for liberty. I ask you, are we to have deeds as well as words?

Quoted in The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston, by Albert J. von Frank (Harvard University Press, 1998).

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