The Fugitive Slave Law

Following the acquisition of the vast territories gained from the war with Mexico (1846-48), there was increasing sectional tension about whether the states carved from the new territories should be slave or free states. In an attempt to quell these tensions, Congress in 1850 approved the Compromise of 1850, which allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, left the Utah and New Mexico territories open to the possibility of becoming slave states, abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and imposed a stringent Fugitive Slave Law made it legally incumbent upon all citizens of the US to return escaped slaves to their masters. Rather than putting an end to sectional controversy on slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law outraged black and white abolitionists (and even less politically inclined northerners with heretofore moderate antislavery sentiments), who regarded the new law as a clear sign that the southern "slave power" had control of the federal government and that slavery would remain central to northern and southern U.S. culture. Northerners who had hitherto felt that slavery was something that happened in the south, now found themselves confronted with mob scenes at northern courthouses that attempted to enforce the new law. Outraged by the new law, and attempting to make whites sympathetic to the new, dire situation of blacks in the U.S., Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Like Stowe, Walt Whitman regarded the Fugitive Slave Law as making the plight of the American slave even more hopeless and desperate. As Christ-like healer and sympathizer, he imagines himself in "Song of Myself" as a fugitive slave and takes on that slave’s sufferings. Free blacks had a somewhat different perspective on the new law, for they were concerned not only with the plight of the slave, but with their own new-found sense of vulnerability. Couldn’t they be "mistaken" as fugitive slaves and be sent down South to the slave masters? In his 1852 The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Martin Delany voiced his grave concerns about the ways in which the Fugitive Slave Law fundamentally altered the situation of the free blacks in the U.S.: "By the provisions of this bill [the Fugitive Slave Law], the colored people of the United States are positively degraded beneath the level of the whites--are made liable at any time, in any place, and under all circumstances, to be arrested--and upon the claim of any white person, without the privilege, even of making a defence, sent into endless bondage. . . .We are slaves in the midst of freedom, waiting patiently. . . for masters to come and lay claim to us." Convinced that the Fugitive Slave Law would never be overturned, he called on the free blacks to emigrate to Central and South America. To make his case about the iniquitous character of the Fugitive Slave Law as clear as possible, he printed the complete text of the law in chapter 16 of Condition, "National Disfranchisement of Colored People."

Like Delany, Whitfield was convinced that the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law revealed that the prospects for blacks in the U.S. were bleak indeed. And like numerous black activists of the period, including Douglass, he was profoundly disillusioned by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. Whites may well celebrate the U.S. as the home of democratic freedoms, but the new law revealed that the democratic nation remained little more than a slave power.

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