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The Fugitive Slave Bill

The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 expanded the rights of persons who participated in capturing a person alleged to have escaped enslavement. It provided incentives not only for the persons involved in the capturing, but also for the judicial authorities involved in the process. The bill also established penalties for any person who impeded this process and narrowed the rights of any person alleged to have escaped slavery.
Author
United States Congress
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 4 and 8.

fugitive slave bill

SEC. 6. And be it further anacted, 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 U. States, the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due … may pursue and reclaim such Fugitive person, either by procuring a warrant from some one of the Courts, Judges, or Commissioners aforesaid, of the proper Circuit, District, or County, for the apprehension of such Fugitive from service or labor, or by seizing and arresting such Fugitive where the same can be done without process; and by taking or causing such person to be taken, forthwith before such Court, Judge or Commissioner, whose duty it shall be to hear and determine the case of such claimant in a summary manner; and upon satisfactory proof being made by deposition or affidavit, in writing, to be taken and certified by such Court, Judge, or Commissioner, or by other satisfactory testimony, duly taken and certified by some Court, Magistrate, Justice of the Peace, or other legal officer authorized to administer an oath and take depositions under the laws of the State or Territory from which such person owing service or labor may have escaped, with a certificate of such Magistrate or other authority, as aforesaid, with the seal of the proper Court or officer thereto attached, which seal shall be sufficient to establish the competency of the proof, and with proof also by affidavit, of the identity of the person whose service or labor is claimed to be due as aforesaid, that the person so arrested does in fact owe service or labor to the person or persons claiming him or her, in the State or Territory from which such Fugitive may have escaped as aforesaid, and that said person escaped, to make and deliver to such claimant, his or her Agent or Attorney, a certificate setting forth the substantial facts as to the service or labor due from such Fugitive to the claimant, and of his or her escape from the State or Territory in which such service or labor was due, to the State or Territory in which he or she was arrested, with authority to such claimant, or his or her Agent or Attorney, to use such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary, under the circumstances of the case, to take and remove such Fugitive person back to the State or Territory from whence he or she may have escaped as aforesaid. In no trial hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged Fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first section mentioned shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted to remove such Fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of said person or persons by any process issued by any Court, Judge, Magistrate, or other person whomsoever. 

SECT. 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, or from the custody of the 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 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 offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the District in which such offence 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 one thousand dollars 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 offence may have been committed. 

SECT. 8. And be it further enacted, That the Marshals, their Deputies, and the Clerks of the said Districts or 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 from the want of sufficient proof as aforesaid, then such fees are to be paid in the whole by such complainant, his Agent or Attorney; and in all cases where the proceedings are before a Commissioner, he shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his or her Agent or Attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where proof shall not, in the opinion of such Commissioner, warrant such certificate and delivery, inclusive of all services incident to such arrest and examination, to be paid, in either case, by the claimant, his or her Agent or Attorney. The person or persons authorized to execute the process to be issued by such Commissioners for the arrest and detention of Fugitives from service or labor as aforesaid, shall also be entitled to a fee of five dollars each for each person he or they may arrest and take before any such Commissioner as aforesaid, at the instance and request of such claimant, with such other fees as may be deemed reasonable by such Commissioner for such other additional services as may be necessarily performed by him or them. 

Source
This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2012.46.5.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Reread Section 8. How much money did members of the court get for cases that turned the “fugitive” back over to the claimant? How much money did they get in cases that denied the claimant? How might this affect the judicial process?
    Answer
    “Marshals, their Deputies, and the Clerks of the said Districts and Territorial Courts” received $10 for every case in which the person alleged to have escaped enslavement was found guilty and returned to the claimant. In cases in which the person alleged to have escaped enslavement was found not guilty and not returned to the claimant, these members of the justice system received $5. This provides a significant financial incentive to rule in favor of the claimant rather than the accused.
  2. Question
    Which section of the bill established legal penalties for persons who helped protect formerly enslaved persons? What were those legal penalties?
    Answer
    Section 7 established penalties for persons who helped protect formerly enslaved persons. These persons could face a fine of up to $1000 and up to six months of imprisonment if found guilty of having tried to impede the process of capturing a person accused of escaping enslavement.
  3. Question
    Reread Section 6. What rights did the bill grant to persons accused of being the property of the claimant?
    Answer
    The persons accused had little to no rights. They had no rights to testify, as the bill states: “In no trial hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged Fugitive be admitted in evidence.” Certain clauses actually put their physical safety directly in danger, such as the bill’s authorization of the “claimant, or his or her Agent or Attorney, to use such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary … to take and remove such Fugitive person back to the State or Territory from whence he or she may have escaped.”
  4. Question
    What does the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 show us about the role of law and legislation in promoting racism and white supremacy? Why would a majority of Congress agree to implement such legislation? What does this show us about democracy in America and the operation of the U.S. government?
    Answer
    This bill shows us that laws and legislation can be deliberately crafted to promote white supremacy, incorporating racism and prejudice directly into the law that guides behavior in society. One answer for why a majority of Congress would agree to such legislation is that a majority of Congress was racist or prejudiced. A second answer for why a majority of Congress would do so is that they were desperate to avoid conflict and reach a compromise, even if that meant agreeing to pass this legislation. This has many potential implications about our larger system of government. Answers might explore the effects of compromise in our legislative system or the effectiveness of checks and balances in our government. Answers will likely conclude that the implications of the Fugitive Slave Bill for American democracy are altogether negative.
Reveal Answers
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