Today in History:

Background of The Fugitive Slave Law

On September 18, 1850 the United States Congress passed a series of legislation that would become known as the Compromise of 1850. Among other things, the Compromise set into motion the notorious Fugitive Slave Law, a devastating blow to African Americans, both slave and free, and their abolitionist allies. In Boston especially the free Black community was tested in ways that it had not been tested before, a test that, once it was passed, would galvanize Black Bostonians into militant activism.

The Compromise of 1850, like the Missouri Compromise thirty years earlier in 1820, was part of American efforts to resolve the conflict over the spread of slavery into the developing western territories. In February 1850, Kentucky senator Henry Clay began to develop parts of the compromise with help from vice president Millard Filmore. After the death of President Taylor in July, Filmore, Clay, and their supporters - including Massachusetts' secretary of state Daniel Webster - steered the compromise through both houses where it was voted on in parts. This resulted in a series of legislation that, as a whole, disappointed both northerners and southerners. The Compromise stated: 1) slave trading was outlawed in the District of Columbia, yet slavery itself was to be decided upon by residents of both the district and the state of Maryland; 2) Congress had no power to interfere with the interstate slave trade; 3) California would be admitted to the Union as a free state; 4) New Mexico and Utah would decide on slavery through a vote of popular sovereignty; and 5) a federal fugitive slave law would be enacted, making it illegal for northerners to harbor, aid, or assist fugitive slaves. This last, the fugitive slave law, was the most devastating for African Americans. It meant that, if caught, fugitive slaves were no longer bought before judicial officers for determination of their fate. Instead, they were brought before federal commissioners. Thus, the liberty of thousands of African Americans lay in the lap of a terribly biased administrative, rather than judicial, process.

As early as 1643, colonists had recognized a need for the regulation of fugitive slaves. In Massachusetts, for example, there was the New England Confederation (1643 - 1684) that was founded, in part, to strengthen colonial cooperation in the return of fugitive slaves. After the Revolutionary war, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, which gave legal support to masters seeking their fugitive slaves. In response, states that had recently freed their slaves, like Massachusetts, established personal liberty laws to protect citizens from slave catchers. Under these personal liberty laws, fugitives could testify before judges and slave owners were prevented from seizing fugitives without a warrant for their arrest.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, however, made all personal liberty laws null and void. A claimant (i.e. Slave owner) or his representative (ie slave catcher) could claim fugitives simply by seizing a Black person who fit the description of the runaway and bringing him/her before a federal judge. The judge decided the identity of the fugitive, based entirely on the testimony of the slave owner or slave catcher. And if the fugitive was returned to the owner, the judge received ten dollars from the federal government, but if the judge found in favor of the defendant, he received only five dollars. In addition, slaves were not permitted to give testimony on their own behalf for, as the law stated "in no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted as evidence." All commissioners, including local judges, were given the same power as Supreme Court judges when enforcing the fugitive slave law and its penalties. Any US marshal who refused to act under the law was fined $1000, and any person "obstructing arrest of [said] fugitive, harboring fugitives, or concealing them" was fined up to $1000 and could serve up to six months in prison. For African Americans and the abolitionists who assisted them, the Fugitive Slave Law struck a blow against their liberty by stripping them of due process before the law.

If anything positive could possibly come out of the fugitive slave law, it was the response of Boston's Black community. In resisting the law, Black Bostonians were galvanized into militant, unapologetic activism. Of course, prior to 1850, Boston Blacks had proven their strength in the face of pro-slavery legislation, proving to the country and the world that they would not sit idly by and watch their fragile liberty be ripped apart at the seams. In both 1793 and 1823 fugitive slaves were arrested in Boston, but they managed to escape from prison with the assistance of the local Black community.

In 1826, two fugitive slave women, Eliza Smalls and Polly Ann Bates, were seized by slave catchers while hiding aboard a ship anchored at Boston Harbor. The ship captain confined the fugitives in the ship before returning down south. With agitation from local Black leaders and a handful of White abolitionists, Supreme Court judge Lemuel Shaw ruled that the ship captain had no right to convert the ship into a prison because Massachusetts was a free state. The women were released from captivity and before the ship's owner could arrest them under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, a group of local Blacks rescued the fugitives and brought them to safety. Less than twenty years later, in 1842, fugitive George Latimer was arrested in Boston, resulting in a swarm of local activism by people like Joshua B. Smith, John T. Hilton, and William Lloyd Garrison. A crowd of over fifty local Blacks surrounded the jail where Latimer was being held and the slave owner, fearing insurrection if he proceeded with the court case, sold Latimer to a local abolitionist for less than 25% of what he would have gotten for selling him down south.

Thus, the Black community of Boston had a proud, strong legacy of activist history to draw upon when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was passed. The one thing preventing their collective rise to action was the very real fear of being kidnapped, a fear that was realized less than three weeks after the law was passed. On September 28, fugitive James Hamlet of New York City was kidnapped, convicted, and returned to his former owners in Baltimore. The entire process, which had taken weeks underneath the previous fugitive slave law, took less than five hours. In response, over 2000 Black people from all over the north picked up their lives and fled to Canada; between 1850 and 1855, over 250 of those refugees came from Boston. Those who stayed, however, vowed to fight. On September 20, 1850, a group of Black people - including such leaders as William C. Nell, William Craft, and Lewis Hayden - met at the African Meeting House, where members vowed to "exert a united and persevering resistance to the ungodly, anti-American law." The following Friday, October 5, they met again, this time to hear leaders from Frederick Douglass to Joshua B. Smith vow to protect the community by any means necessary. Finally on October 14, this group joined forces with White abolitionists like Theodore Parker and Francis Jackson to form the inter-racial Boston Vigilance Committee. The Vigilance Committee dedicated itself to raising money and legal support for fugitive slaves; until the end of the Civil War, it was at the forefront of every fugitive slave case in Boston, including the rescues of William and Ellen Craft, Shadrach Minkins, Thomas Sims, and Anthony Burns.

The Fugitive Slave Law had devastating repercussions for African Americans. In the decade that followed, hundreds of fugitives were taken from their homes in the north and sold down south. Abolitionists and Black community members rescued some of these fugitives, while others remained the victims of a system under which slavery and racism had become increasingly politicized. Yet in Boston, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 marked the dawn of a new day in Black activism. African-Americans throughout the city became more militant, arming themselves through companies like the Massasoit Guards and further distancing themselves from the pacifist politics of William Lloyd Garrison and William C. Nell. As the debate over slavery intensified - through Bleeding Kansas in 1854, the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry - Black Bostonians stood their ground.

Taken from:

Horton, James and Lois Horton. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North. New York, NY: Holmes and Meier, 1979.

Encyclopedia Britannica

May, Samuel. Some Recollections of Our Anti-Slavery Conflict. Miami, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., Inc. 1969.