High School Unit I

Activity 1: Analyzing the Fugitive Slave Act

The text of the Fugitive Slave Act reveals a great deal about the situation blacks living in the North faced after 1850. The new law empowered federal marshals to force bystanders to assist in the capture of a fugitive and imposed stiff fines and prison sentences on those who did not cooperate. Fugitives had no right to speak in their own defense, and were not entitled to either a lawyer or a jury trial. Northern blacks denounced the law for being “so wicked, so atrocious, so utterly and variance with the principles of the Constitution.” Even people not especially interested in the plight of the enslaved believed the Act infringed on states’ rights. They also believed it was unconstitutional because it violated the right of an accused to due process. What most outraged northerners was the fact that the law required bystanders to assist in catching fugitives.

After students have read one or more sections of the law, have them discuss the following questions in class or in writing:

  1. The word “slave” never appears in the text of the Fugitive Slave Act. How does the law refer to enslaved people? Why?
  2. What objections do students think northerners raised to the Act?
  3. How would students have responded to the new law if they were supporters of abolitionism?

Teachers can expand the lesson by having students read “Boston Minister Tried for Inciting a Riot,” which tells the dramatic story of William and Ellen Craft’s flight from slavery.

Discuss:

  1. What was the immediate impact in Boston of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act?
  2. How did abolitionists respond to the Act?
  3. What threats did the Act pose to black men and women living in the North? (For example, there are documented cases in which free blacks were kidnapped into slavery.)
  4. What is “civil disobedience”? (Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay on civil disobedience is available online.)
  5. What other times in history has civil disobedience been used as a strategy to bring about change?