June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

What Was the Fugitive Slave Act?

10 min read

The best way to understand the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (the most comprehensive version) is to first understand the context of slavery at that time. The Fugitive Slave Act, released so close to the Civil War and in effect even during the war, is a snapshot of the complex forces that shaped the issue.

Let us look first at a short history of slavery in the United States, and then at various laws related to the Fugitive Slave Act before it was passed. We will then look at its effects on abolition efforts in the nation, and what happened after its repeal. 

A short history of slavery in the United States

Indentured servitude

Anywhere from 30% to 50% of the European immigrants to the land that would eventually become the United states were indentured servants (around 300,000 people). These were people under a contract where they would receive, for example, passage to the Americas in exchange for a number of years of service. The first recorded indentured servant came to the Americas in 1620.

The indentures were limited in validity, but the contracts could be exchanged, bought, sold, or inherited by the “employers.” Those indentured had no say once their indentures changed hands. As the “employers” were only required to feed, clothe, and shelter their indentured servants, the servants were fortunate if they came away with marketable skills. 

The rise of slavery

Indentured servitude, especially for landowners, was valuable because it did not require the employers to pay any wages. At the same time, there was an end to their servitude. If the servant had been “rented” from a company (something like an employment agency), the landowner would have to maintain the servant in a certain way, provide for their healthcare, and prevent runaways. This added to the burden on the landowners.

The consistent rise of agriculture in the New World ensured that labor in the form of indentured servants was consistently required. Interestingly enough, as the landowners increased their profits and industries, there was a higher requirement for skilled labor. At the time, skilled servants served less years as it was assumed that they were giving higher value for money. As a result, the cost to maintain skilled workers alongside unskilled workers was going up. 

In truth, but unknown to many, there were African slaves in the British colonies as early as 1619 (yes, a year before indentured servants entered the scene). A Portuguese trading ship whose cargo included African slaves was pirated by British ships and brought to the colonies. All of the cargo, including the 20 or so slaves, was sold. 

Growth of slaveholding

This first introduced the concept of lifetime unskilled labor (in short, slavery) to the colonies. From 1620 to 1630, the number of slaves increased by 195% to 59 persons. From 1630 to 1640, the number of slaves increased by 891% to 585 persons. This was the largest rate of growth, but it was a “good” start to what would become a thriving slave trade. 

As European skilled laborers became more and more expensive, landowners upskilled their African slaves for free (more or less). This led to the massive increase of slaves bought and sold. As the slaves were also giving birth, the imports and birth rates combined to continue the growth of slaves in the colonies. By 1776 and the American Revolution, there were 558,921 slaves. By 1865 and the end of the Civil War, there were 3,630,336 former slaves in the colonies. Given the nearly 27,000,000 white residents in the colonies, roughly 1 in every 9 persons was African.

By 1643, the General Assembly of Virginia had already passed laws allowing employers and slaveowners to punish runaway indentured servants and slaves, even marking them as runaways. By 1661, a law was passed prohibiting marriage to black people. 1662, laws were passed ensuring that children born of slaves would become property as well. 

Prior to and during the American Revolution, there were already indicators that slavery was much more important to some states than to others. It would also become clear to some that the rhetoric of freedom was not consistent with slaveholding. These were the cracks that would lead to incongruous laws in a new nation.

1776 – Revolution and nation-building

The state of slavery before the Revolution

The shortest way to describe the distribution of slave labor prior to the Revolution is that the Northern colonies were industrialized and the heart of trade and business; the Southern colonies were highly agricultural and supplied raw material and food crops for the colonies and for trade. 

There were indeed slaves in the Northern colonies, but they were mainly household help, dockworkers, and the like. The number of laborers milling about the bigger cities were enough to keep wages low (because if you didn’t grab that job for less, someone else would), and hiring cheap was more beneficial

The big cities did not have the space or manpower for company owners to feed, clothe, and shelter slaves. It was so much simpler to have workers clock in and clock out, pay them their wages, and ignore what they did outside of work hours. This did not mean the Northern colonies were any more powerful than the Southern ones. In fact, the South was enough of an economic powerhouse that concessions about slavery would enter the Constitution. 

The American Revolution

By the Revolution, the British had become a common enemy of the colonies. However, this was not enough to keep the colonies together. The Declaration of Independence was presented as the statement of colonies unified in their secession from the British Empire, and unity had to be presented for the British Empire or any other international party to take them seriously. 

To keep the landowning Southern states in the Union, there could be no explicit statement against slave owning or slavery. Slave labor drove production of the cash crops in a way that landowners were wholly dependent on. In other words, were slave labor to be removed, the entire economic system would slow down or grind to a halt.

At the same time, as a port city, the Northern state of New York was a major slave trading hub. It profited greatly from the continued need of the nation for more slaves. However, as the number of slave-born persons grew, this lessened the need for trade. The Southern states would have continued to require intra-trade in slave labor. The Northern states would have seen less flow, making the trade less profitable than before. 

At the same time, moral protests against slavery had begun in many places in the North. They were protracted processes that would not shake the institution for quite a few years yet. The outlawing of slavery was not the granting of citizenship; it simply made it illegal to own or trade in former slave labor. 

The trickiness of nation-building

After the Revolution was won, the colonies that had banded together to free themselves from Imperial Britain now needed a reason to stay together. Disparate former colonies with different sources of income and differing political and economic weights in gatherings needed to come to multiple and complex agreements that would meet the needs of each new state.

Slave labor and slave holding was an important part of the entire discussion. The most important goal right after the Revolution and for nearly 100 years after would be keeping the Union together. 

1787 – Northern states that had abolished slavery by the Constitutional Convention

  • 1777 – Vermont, while it was still independent of New York
  • 1780 – Pennsylvania passed a law freeing every slave born after 1780 once they had reached the age of 28
  • 1783 – Massachusetts abolished slavery after a series of cases in which, as persons under the law, slaves and slave owners were suing and counter-suing one another on points of ownership. Slavery was finally deemed incompatible with the state’s Constitution, and therefore abolished
  • 1784 – Connecticut and Rhode Island abolished slavery on a protracted basis, much like Pennsylvania’s law
  • 1787 – the Northwest Ordinance abolished slavery in any states that would be formed north of the Ohio River

By the 1787 Constitutional Convention, slavery was a serious topic and a point of contention between the states. Some states, notably South Carolina and Georgia, said outright that they would have no part in the Union unless the importation of slaves was federally protected. As a result, any restrictions on slave importation were banned for 20 years (so if we’re counting, until 1807). 

The fugitive slave clause, a precursor to the Fugitive Slave Act, was also passed at this time. By this time there were enough “free states,” states that had abolished slavery, to give some kind of “encouragement” as it were for slaves to flee there and seek emancipation. In many ways, to preserve the peace and reduce hostilities between the states especially when the new Constitution had just been drafted, the clause was necessary. Not beneficial or advisable, but necessary to the goal. 

1793 – the first Fugitive Slave Act

The Constitution’s fugitive slave clause simply stated that a slave owner had the right to pursue what they considered their property even if they crossed into the free states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 outlined who could follow a “fugitive from labor” into the free states, but gave them a deadline of 6 months in which to appear and charge the person.

At the same time, it made provisions that would fine anyone who attempted to prevent the capture or return of such fugitives. In other words, whoever helped a runaway slave could be prosecuted by the law. The Act did not require people to surrender information about the fugitives, however, and made it quite clear that physical hindrance of capture was more frowned upon than, for example, just keeping quiet. However, hiding a fugitive was also liable to a fine.

1808 – The ban on the import of slaves

To do Congress justice, as soon as the 20-year restriction on banning the slave trade lapsed, all international imports of slaves were banned. The initial motivation for the 20-year ban, however, had not been so positive. Several Southern states with high slave mortality rates had still been dependent on the international slave trade for cheaper labor as of 1787.

Other Southern states, with large enough slave populations and low enough mortality rates, could depend on slave-born labor. The 20 years gave the import-dependent states a chance to sort out their economic state, and set up an internal slave trade that simply took over once imports were banned. 

How meaningful, then, was this import ban? Firstly, it showed just how slavery all over the world was facing a decline. It is widely believed that the increase of literacy, education, and the Age of Enlightenment created the logical foundations needed to overturn slavery. There were also acts by former European colonies towards liberty, not just in the United States, which inevitably sparked discussions about what made one man free and another man a slave. 

Banning the import of slaves may not have led to the immediate decline of slavery in the United States, but it was certainly a benchmark for the nation. It is also very telling that the Underground Railroad came into play around 1810, very shortly after. The new restrictions on the slave trade would have significantly reduced complications, and allowed for systemized rescue of runaways and fugitives. 

1850 – the Compromise of 1850

The building of a new nation is complex enough without the addition of new voices to Congress, but that was what was happening throughout the years after the Revolution, especially after the new territories annexed following the Mexican-American War. New states were being added to the federation, some slave-owning, some not (notably Texas, California, and New Mexico, among others). While much of Congress wished all new states to be slave-free, the territories’ existing economic statuses would not stand for it. 

The issue was as much political as anything else. The balance of “free” versus “slave” states directly impacted the balance of power within Congress. Any state admitted as “free” tipped the balance towards the Northern free states; any state admitted as “slave” tipped the balance towards the Southern slave states. It was  a tricky juggling act for the entire nation. 

As a result, although slave-owning Texas was admitted to the federation as such, California was a “free” state and other states were added with no added references to slavery, implying the state could sovereignly decide in which direction it would go.

Notably, another Fugitive Slave Act was passed during this time. 

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

While the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 mostly placed the burden on slave owners and their agents to bring fugitive slaves back to their states, the 1850 version actively enlisted the free states in catching fugitives. Judges and marshals of the free states could be called upon to help agents in catching fugitives, and “all good citizens” were required to do the same or face a fine. 

While this may have looked worse for fugitives on paper, in reality it sparked even more abolitionist protests. The citizens were now involved because of the law, and therefore citizens made individual decisions in favor of or against the law. The risks for them were greater, so the decisions they made carried more weight in general.

It may have very well been this Slave Act that brought the citizens into active personal reflection about slavery and liberty prior to the Civil War. They now had a personal stake in whether or not the Union was free or allowed slavery. The Underground Railroad, already in full swing, continued to bring fugitives to freedom. 

1864 – The Civil War and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act

When the Southern states seceded in 1963, there were certain slave-holding states in the Union (Delaware, Missouri among others). As a result, even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was only for slaves in the seceded states, as a way to lessen the Southern states’ power and encourage support for the Union. In other words, the Emancipation Proclamation did not include slave-holding states in the Union. 

The Fugitive Slave Act was also maintained for a while, also to appease the slave states still in the Union. However, when the tide of the war had almost completely turned and abolition of slavery as a result of the Civil War was becoming more and more a reality, it was finally repealed on June 28, 1864. The future united nation would no longer be slave-holding, slave-owning, or slave-trading. While other miscegenation and similarly discriminatory laws would take another 100 years or so to repeal, this set the stage of the nation’s future laws and values. 


The Fugitive Slave Acts were not written in a vacuum. They were enacted to serve the needs of the new nation and create compromises that would hold the states together. While there was eventual devolution into the Civil War and great losses on both sides, the Acts maintained tenuous peacetimes that would allow the citizens of the federation to make their own decisions about the place of slavery in their nation.