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.
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.
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…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…
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.
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, 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 …
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 dollarsin 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]…
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.
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?
1. What were the marshal’s responsibilities?
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?
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?
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?
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?