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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

By Catherine A. Paul

A poster dated April 24, 1851 warning colored people in Boston to beware of authorities who acted as slave catchers.
April 24, 1851 “CAUTION!! Colored People of Boston” broadside warning of watchmen and police acting as kidnappers and slave catchers
Photo: Public Domain

The Fugitive Slave Acts were congressional statutes passed in 1793 and 1850 that permitted for the seizure and return of runaway slaves who escaped from one state and fled into another (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as a part of the Compromise of 1850, required that the U.S. government actively intervene to help slave owners regain control over their slaves (Ohio History Connection, n.d.). This act dictated that fugitive slaves were neither allowed to testify on their own behalf, nor were they allowed to have a trial by jury (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). This was “justified” through legislators’ claims that African Americans could not be United States citizens and thus were not afforded any protections (Ohio History Connection, n.d.). 

Moreover, federal marshals who refused to enforce the law and individuals who helped slaves to escape were heavily penalized and were fined $1,000 (Ohio History Connection, n.d.). Furthermore, special commissioners were given concurrent jurisdiction with U.S. courts enforcing this act (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). This was determined to be wildly corrupt, for these special commissioners were paid $10 to rule in favor of slave owners, but they only received $5 if they sided with slaves. Between 1850 and 1860, 343 fugitive slaves appeared before these special commission, and of those, 332 were returned to slavery in the South (Ohio History Connection, n.d.).

Engraving of scenes from the life of Anthony Burns, fugitive slave
Scenes from the life of Anthony Burns, who was arrested and tried under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID pga 04268

The severity of this statute inspired an increased number of abolitionists, the development of a more efficient Underground Railroad, and the establishment of new personal-liberty laws in the North (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). These personal liberty laws were enacted in eight Northern States and prohibited state officials from assisting in returning fugitive slaves to the South (Olson & Mendoza, 2015). This prominent resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 incited further hostility between the North and the South and bolstered the controversy over slavery (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). Anti-Fugitive Slave Act riots erupted all over the North in 1851 (Olson & Mendoza, 2015). The Fugitive Slave Acts were not repealed until June 28, 1864 (Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.).

For further reading:

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, courtesy of The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library.


Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Fugitive Slave Acts: United States (1793, 1850). In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Retrieved from

Ohio History Connection. (n.d.). Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Ohio History Central. Retrieved from

Olson, J. S. & Mendoza, A. O. (2015). Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. In American Economic History: A Dictionary and Chronology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Paul, C. A. (2016). Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from