HomeHistoryThe Worst Of History: Part 1 –  The Fugitive Slave Act 1850

The Worst Of History: Part 1 –  The Fugitive Slave Act 1850

As far back as the earliest law sources, from Hammurabi’s Code to Draco The Lawgiver, many pieces of legislation or created rules seem to be extremely harsh and abhorrent. That said, few can stand up to the sheer stupidity and outrageousness of the 1850s Fugitive Slave Act. A law that was so heavily unjustifiable and unfair to slaves that it sped up the course of the American Civil War, there can be little argument that the law is one of history’s most reprehensible pieces of legislature, in which the lives of many minorities were ruined. 

So, in this new series of The WORST Of History, only the absolute worst of days (thankfully) long gone by will be covered. 


The history of slavery in the USA is a long-winding and complex one, stretching back as far as the 16th century. 

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was an attempted compromise between the Confederacy of the south and the Union of the north, with the former being more keen slave owners. This 1850 legislation built on a 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slaveowners to recapture escapees who had fled to free states, which the north disliked as did the south who thought the north was deliberately aiding slavery. 

The Difference in Fugitive Slave Laws
(Photo courtesy of Accessible Archives)

The Act was drawn up by Virginia senator James Murray Mason, a slaveholder and white supremacist who called the “negroes” – as known then – “the great curse of the country”. This made him one of the many views of slavery as a “positive good” albeit not as popular as Robert E. Lee or John C. Calhoun. (Even after the act’s abolishment, he would turn to import white slaves from Canada.)  

The Act Itself

The new 1850 act penalised any official who would not arrest a fugitive, being punished with a 6-month prison sentence and a $1,000 fine (or over $31,000 in 2021). Furthermore, citizens were given harsh punishments for not only aiding and abetting slaves but also for being inactive – not reporting or acting after seeing an escaped slave. 

U.S. Marshals Service, History, The Constitutional Imperative - Enforcing  Fugitive Slave Laws and Segregation
Two white men and a dog chase after a slave escapee (Photo courtesy of U.S. Marshals Service)

What is worse is that if captured, these slaves could be prosecuted on little more than the word of the supposed master, with a special commissioner making the decision, one in which there was no jury and the slave got not a single word of defence. In addition, this commissioner would be gifted $5 if the suspect was freed but $10 if the suspect was returned to slavery, giving a clear economic incentive for the decision by the commissioner.  

With this, anybody could randomly accuse even a free black man of being his slave and without defence or true legal process, the commissioner would likely force the slave back to a life of misery on the plantation, with the prospect of double pay for making such decision. Promotions were too in store for those who captured slaves, even more of a motivating factor in the commissioner’s choice.  

Fugitive Slave Acts | Definition & History | Britannica
A poster offering rewards for those who turn in runaway slaves (Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica)

Of course, those in the north took great annoyance with this law and rightfully so, with only 332 returned to southern owners as the north sabotaged this legal matter; only 11 were acquitted. Pastors, politicians, and other citizens of the colour showed mass hatred, including reformist Federick Douglass, writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, and politician Joshua Reed Giddings amongst many others. 

Those punished under such law, such as those imprisoned, tortured, or killed in the south for harbouring slaves had such done to them under state laws, not federal laws. Historian Eric Foner would call this act’s usage of state, not federal laws as “the most powerful exercise of federal authority within the United States.” 

Yet in 1959, unanimously answered claims that the Act was unlawful, with Chief Justice Taney declaring: “the act of Congress commonly called the fugitive slave law is, in all of its provisions, fully authorized by the Constitution of the United States.” 

William Still claimed: “The day the Fugitive Bill passed, even the bravest abolitionist began to fear that a fugitive slave was no longer safe anywhere under the stars and stripes, north or south.” Whilst Robert Schnekkan stated, “It was violently detested. There were riots.” 

Fugitive Slave Acts - HISTORY
A poster directed at slaves to warn them of the Act (Photo courtesy of History.com)

These boiling tensions rose over in 1861, culminating in the American Civil War. The only good thing that can possibly be said for this law is that it fastened the pace of the conflict between the north and the south which ended with a win for the Unionists and the abolishment of slavery, with this law in particular repealed in 1864, shortly before war’s end. The “Bloodhound Bill”, as it was titled by the Union, was eradicated.  


In all, this law is seen as one of the most appalling and understandable reviled in the history of the USA. How was there supposed to be any liberty, any justice, any sense of fairness to this law? Simply put: there wasn’t. That is what this whole law was about. A hugely racially corrupt system that almost always was going to tip the scales in favour of the wealthy claimants without any needed lack of evidence – and even evidence against would not be heard, with the absent jury and no defence from the accused. The clincher however is the pay, showing a broken, deeply cruel and corrupt system in a nation whose very own constitution was aiming to be one of the most democratic, fair, and free as possible and one of the finest in the world. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act completely goes against any of this…

The New York Tribune likely put it best when writing of its abolishment that: “The blood-red stain that has blotted the statute-book of the Republic is wiped out forever.” 


Griffin Kaye
Griffin Kaye
Griffin Kaye is a contributing writer for TWM. He is a life-long pro wrestling, comedy and music fan. He can be reached by e-mail at GriffinKaye1@hotmail.com, on Twitter @GriffinKaye1, as well as on Instagram at @TheGriffinKaye, @NoContextQI, @NoContextHaveIGotNewsForYou, @NoContextMilesJupp and @WrestlingInTheYears.
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