The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
The Fugitive Slave Act was undoubtedly the most controversial and troublesome part of the 1850 Compromise. It led, among other things, to the passage of various "personal liberty laws," designed to negate or nullify the federal statute in northern states. The Act's effects must also have spurred Harriet Beecher Stowe in the writing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Only the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 can claim to have done more to force the nation closer to civil war than the act reprinted below.
Following the Fugitive Slave Act is one more statute that was part of the Compromise of 1850, the act which ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia, a small victorty for the anti-slavery forces.
act to amend, and supplementary to, the act entitled "An act respecting
fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters,"
approved February 12, 1793.
enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America
in Congress assembled, that the persons who have been, or may hereafter
be, appointed commissioners, in virtue of any act of Congress, by the Circuit
Courts of the United States, and who, in consequence of such appointment, are
authorized to exercise the powers that any justice of the peace, or other magistrate
of any of the United States, may exercise in respect to offenders for any crime
or offense against the United States, by arresting, imprisoning, or bailing
the same under and by virtue of Section 33 of the act of September 24,
1789, entitled "An act to establish the judicial courts of the United States,"
shall be, and are hereby, authorized and required to exercise and discharge
all the powers and duties conferred by this act.
2. And be it further enacted, that the Superior Court of each organized
territory of the United States shall have the same power to appoint commissioners
to take acknowledgments of ball and affidavits, and to take depositions of witnesses
in civil causes which is now possessed by the Circuit Court of the United States;
and all commissioners who shall hereafter be appointed for such purposes by
the Superior Court of any organized territory of the United States shall possess
all the powers and exercise all the duties conferred by law upon the commissioners
appointed by the Circuit Courts of the United States for similar purposes, and
shall moreover exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by
3. And be it further enacted, that the Circuit Courts of the United States
and the Superior Courts of each organized territory of the United States shall
from time to time enlarge the number of commissioners, with a view to afford
reasonable facilities to reclaim fugitives from labor and to the prompt discharge
of the duties imposed by this act.
4. And be it further enacted, that the commissioners above named shall
have concurrent jurisdiction with the judges of the Circuit and District courts
of the United States, in their respective circuits and districts within the
several states, and the judges of the Superior Courts of the territories, severally
and collectively, in term time and vacation; and 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.
Section 5. 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 $1,000, to the use of such claimant, on the motion of such claimant, by the Circuit or District court for the district of such marshal; and after arrest of such fugitive by such marshal or his deputy, or while at any time in his custody under the provision 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.
better to enable the said commissioners, when thus appointed, to execute their
duties faithfully and efficiently, in conformity with the requirements of the
Constitution of the United States and of this act, they are hereby authorized
and empowered, within their counties respectively, to appoint, in writing under
their hands, any one or more suitable persons, from time to time, to execute
all such warrants and other process as may be issued by them in the lawful performance
of their respective duties; with authority to such commissioners, or the persons
to be appointed by them, to execute process as aforesaid, to summon and call
to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus of the proper county,
when necessary to ensure a faithful observance of the clause of the Constitution
referred to, in conformity with the provisions of this act; 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, as aforesaid, for that
purpose; and said warrants shall run, and be executed by said officers, anywhere
in the state within which they are issued.
6. 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, or his, her, or their agent or attorney,
duly authorized, by power of attorney, in writing, acknowledged and certified
under the seal of some legal officer or court of the state or territory in which
the same may be executed, may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person . . .
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. . . .
7. 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, his or her agent or attorney, or other person
or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the
authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person
so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from
such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized
as aforesaid; 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 offenses, be subject to a fine not exceeding $1,000 and imprisonment
not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court
of the United States for the district in which such offense may have been committed,
or before the proper court of criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any
one of the organized territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit
and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct,
the sum of $1,000 for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to be recovered by
action of debt in any of the District or Territorial courts aforesaid, within
whose jurisdiction the said offense may have been committed.
8. 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, the like fees as may be allowed to them for similar services in other
cases; and where such services are rendered exclusively in the arrest, custody,
and delivery of the fugitive to the claimant, his or her agent or attorney,
or where such supposed fugitive may be discharged out of custody for the want
of sufficient proof as aforesaid, then such fees are to be paid in the whole
by such claimants, his agent or attorney. . . .
Section 9. And be it further enacted, that, upon affidavit made by the claimant of such fugitive, his agent or attorney, after such certificate has been issued, that he has reason to apprehend that such fugitive will be 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, his agent or attorney. 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.
of the Compromise of 1850 the Congress also passed the following legislation
outlawing the slave trade (but not slavery itself) within the District of Columbia.
An act to suppress the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America
in Congress assembled, that from and after January 1, 1851, it shall not
be lawful to bring into the District of Columbia any slave whatever for the
purpose of being sold, or for the purpose of being placed in depot, to be subsequently
transferred to any other state or place to be sold as merchandise. And if any
slave shall be brought into the said District by its owner, or by the authority
or consent of its owner, contrary to the provisions of this act, such slave
shall thereupon become liberated and free.
Section 2. And be it further enacted, that it shall and may be lawful for each of the corporations of the cities of Washington and Georgetown, from time to time, and as often as may be necessary, to abate, break up, and abolish any depot or place of confinement of slaves brought into the said District as merchandise, contrary to the provisions of this act, by such appropriate means as may appear to either of the said corporations expedient and proper. And the same power is hereby vested in the Levy Court of Washington County, if any attempt shall be made within its jurisdictional limits to establish a depot or place of confinement for slaves brought into the said District as merchandise for sale, contrary to this act.