On September 18, 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Northern and Southern states. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 reinforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
The 1793 law allowed slaveholders or their agents to hunt for runaways in free states. Suspected fugitive slaves had to be brought before a judge, provide proof (usually simply an affidavit or a witness statement) that they were indeed the “property” of the slaveholder, and were then allowed to take their slaves back to their home state. Aiding fugitive slaves was penalized with a $500 fine. The law invited slaveholders to claim former, but freed slaves and slave hunters to kidnap free black citizens and sell as slaves in the South.
In response, several Northern states passed Personal Liberty Laws and gave suspected fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial. This was to protect free blacks from being kidnapped and falsely claimed as slaves and to give runaways a fair process, a better chance and protection without openly refusing to cooperate. New York State provided also a lawyer to represent suspected fugitive slaves in their jury trial. Generally, with increasing anti-slavery sentiments, there was a lack of enforcement of and cooperation with the federal law in free states.
To appease the South and enforce cooperation in the North, the new law required officials to arrest alleged fugitives and penalized them with a fine of $1,000 for not doing so. Not more than a testimony of ownership was needed, no jury was permitted, the suspected runaway was not allowed to testify. The commissioner was headed the hearing was paid $10 if he determined that the individual was a fugitive, but only $5 if not. The aid for helping escaped slaves was increased to $1,000 and six months prison, whereas officers who captured a runaway received a reward.
In response to the new law, abolitionists held an Anti-Fugitive Slave Law Meeting in Syracuse, New York, on January 9, 1851, where Frederick Douglass and Gerrit Smith drafted resolutions against the Fugitive Slave Law which were unanimously adopted.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was born as slave in Maryland as Frederick Bailey. After falling in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore, he escaped through Delaware and Pennsylvania to New York City. There he stayed in the house of the city’s fiercest anti-slavery activist, David Ruggles where he reunited with Anna was married to her by former slave, abolitionist and minister James W.D. Pennington. He went on to become the nation’s most prominent leader of the abolitionist movement in New York and Massachusetts.
Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) was a social reformer, abolitionist, philanthropist and politician from New York who had inherited a significant fortune and vast land from his father. Smith invested huge amounts of money into anti-slavery and other social reform causes (estimated 8 million dollars, equivalent to 1 billion dollars today) and donated 120,000 acres of land to 3,000 black New Yorkers. His home served as Underground Railroad Station, and he helped hundreds of fugitive slaves. He was a close, longtime friend of Frederick Douglass and financed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry John Brown.
The Anti-Fugitive Slavery Law Resolution (full Transcript):
1st. Resolved, that we pour out upon the Fugitive Slave Law the fullest measure of our contempt and hate and execration; and pledge ourselves to resist it actively, as well as passively, and by all such means, as shall, in our esteem, promise the most effectual resistance.
2d. Resolved, that they who consent to be the agents of Southern oppressors for executing this law, whether as Commissioners or Marshals, or in any other capacity, are to be regarded as kidnappers and land-pirates.
3d. Resolved, that it is our duty to peril life, liberty, and property, in behalf of the fugitive slave, to as great an extent as we would peril them in behalf of ourselves.
4th. Resolved, that obviously and grossly Unconstitutional as is this Law, nevertheless this is not the chief reason why we condemn and defy it: for equally, whether they are Constitutional or Unconstitutional, we do condemn and defy all laws, which insult Him, who is above all Constitutions, and which, aiming not to protect, but to destroy, rights, are, therefore to be regarded as no laws.
5th. Resolved, that horrible as is this law, we must bear in mind, that it is but a perfectly natural and not at all to be wondered at exaction of slavery; and that, hence our first and great work is to get rid, not of the law, but of slavery — as it would be our first and great work to pursue and kill the mad-dog, instead of pausing, until we had effected the cure of one of his bites.
6th. Resolved, that between corrupt politics on the one hand and corrupt churches on the other — between the politicians and parties, who enacted this Law, and the priests who are preaching its enforcement — there is no hope for this Nation, unless it shall very speedily be brought to prefer honesty to knavery, both in its religious teachers and civil rulers.
7th. Resolved, that, were the current religion of this country to be exchanged for rank infidelity, the abolition of slavery would be comparatively easy.
8th. Resolved, that when the immortal writer of the Declaration of Independence said: “If we do not liberate the enslaved by that generous energy of our own minds, they must, they will, be liberated by the awful process” of St. Domingo Emancipation, he uttered words, which there is but too much reason to believe are rapidly approaching their fulfillment.
9th. Resolved, that inasmuch as sound principles and sound teachers are as
indispensable in our Institutions of Learning, as in our pulpits, we rejoice to know, that, under the progress of antislavery sentiment, there are already several Colleges in our country, which are opened to colored students; and that there are two of these in which colored students find themselves emphatically at home. There are Oberlin College in Ohio, and Central College in New York — in the latter of which there is a colored Professor.
10th. Resolved, that, inasmuch as every National party in this Nation must,
because it is a National party, spare, if not indeed, positively favor, slavery, it
follows, that whoever belongs to the Whig or Democratic party, or to any
ecclesiastical National party, does, however unwillingly or unwittingly, give his influence and support to slavery.
11th. Resolved, that the time has come, and had long ago come, for gathering a Northern political party, which shall be both determined and able to carry out the principles of the Federal Constitution and the principles of humanity and religion, in overthrowing the base and bloody system of American slavery, and in establishing a righteous Civil Government.
- Anti-Fugitive Slave Law Meeting. At a large meeting of persons from various parts of the State of New York, held in the City of Syracuse… | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
- Unit 7 – Primary Sources – Diary and Journals – Anti-Fugitive Slave Law Meeting – 1851 (iu17.org)
- Digital History (uh.edu)
- Gerrit Smith, the Philanthropist Who Helped End Slavery | World History
- Compromise of 1850 | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org)
- Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (crf-usa.org)
- Gerrit Smith – NATIONAL ABOLITION HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM
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