"Tracing words to origins
To get in the habit of tracing words to their root-meanings" 

(Walt Whitman, Daybooks and Notebooks, 725) 

"Fugitive, a. [Lat. fugitivus, fugere, to flee . . . ] 1. Apt to flee away; given to flying away; inclined to escape; liable to disappear; uncertain; not to be relied upon." (Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1876) 

"Thus was I like the hunted deer" (Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 1789) 

"The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen or more dead kidnappers." (Frederick Douglass, 1850) 

"I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the Southern States are entitled to a Congressional Fugitive Slave Law." (Abraham Lincoln, 1858)

Fugitive Slave Law: Background Issues

Part of the 1850 Compromise, this law empowered federal marshals to compel citizens and communities to cooperate in the return of fugitive slaves. While we usually think of Southern states as most insistent on states' rights, they nonetheless supported this law that gave the federal government more power than any previous law passed by Congress. It was the Northern states that cried foul over the way the law trampled on states' rights. 

It's difficult now to reconstruct just what all the issues were surrounding the controversy over this law. First, it is important to note that the Constitution of the United States had a provision that required the return of fugitive slaves to their owners, but the Constitution did not specify how such return could be enforced. The first fugitive slave law was passed in 1793 and authorized slaveowners to cross state lines to retrieve their "property." Slaveowners could go before any local magistrate or federal court to prove ownership. The slaves had no rights to a trial, a hearing, or even the right to testify in their own behalf. In practice, many slaveowners never bothered going to a magistrate, but instead just captured the fugitive and returned home. 

A number of Northern states fought this practice by passing "personal liberty" laws that gave blacks who were identified by slaveowners as fugitives the right to a trial by jury and the right to testify, and that imposed heavy criminal penalties for kidnapping. These anti-kidnapping and guarantee of personal liberty laws were effective tools for undermining the ability of slaveowners to reclaim fugitive slaves. But in 1842, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such personal liberty laws were unconstitutional and that the Constitutional right of a slaveowner to recover his property trumped any state legislation that worked to deny that right. The Supreme Court also ruled, however, that the enforcement of the fugitive slave clause in the Constitution was a federal responsibility and that no state could be coerced into helping enforce it. 

This decision sent a decidedly mixed message. Many Northerners were angry that the Court had ruled that slaveholders could enter Northern states, track down fugitives, and capture and return them without process of law, but many Southerners were outraged that the Court had ruled that states were exempt from enforcing the laws. This exemption prompted a number of Northern states (including Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island) to pass new personal liberty laws and other laws that prevented, for example, state officers or state jails from being used in the process of returning fugitives. 

It was no easy task for Southern slaveowners to retrieve fugitives in most Northern states. They might find out where an escaped slave lived, and they might travel there and capture the fugitive, but then they had to travel with the fugitive through areas often openly hostile to slavery and slaveowners. A slaveowner took many risks to try to retrieve a slave, and in many areas of the North slaveowners could retrieve fugitive slaves only with the help of federal marshalls. Vigilance committees in the North resisted efforts by federal marshalls to capture fugitive slaves and instead helped the fugitives escape further north through the underground railroad. While the number of fugitive slaves was not huge (estimates are that perhaps two to three hundred slaves a year escaped to the North or Canada), the growing effort by Northern states to undermine what Southerners emphasized was their Constitutional right created tremendous antagonism and a sense on the part of many Southerners that their honor had been insulted. 

Provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, part of a complex group of compromises to try to balance Northern and Southern interests, set out to address this problem (other aspects of the compromise included admitting California as a free state, settling a border dispute between New Mexico and Texas, having the federal government absorb the debt Texas had amassed during its years as an independent republic, and abolishing the slave trade in the District of Columbia while continuing to allow slavery to exist there). For Northern states, the Fugitive Slave Law was read as an attack on states' rights. Among other things, the law allowed slaveowners to bring an alleged fugitive before a special officer, a newly created "federal commissioner," and use testimony of white witnesses or an affidavit from a court in a slavery state to prove ownership. The federal commissioner was then paid by the slaveowner--$5 if the commissioner ruled against the slaveowner's claim and $10 if he ruled in favor of the slaveowner. Many Northerners saw this disparity in payment as a legalized bribe that would encourage federal commissioners to find overwhelmingly in favor of slaveowners. 

The law seemed particularly outrageous to many Northerners because it forced every citizen to be complicitous in the preservation of the institution of slavery. One of the most controversial sections of the law forced federal marshals and deputies to help slaveowners capture fugitives and also allowed federal marshals to deputize citizens and force them to help capture alleged fugitives. This is the aspect of the law that especially infuriated many Northerners, who argued that this provision turned any U.S. citizen into a potential slavecatcher. Thus Henry Clay's comments in the U.S. Senate during the debate over the law caused a great deal of controversy: returning fugitive slaves, he said, "is a requirement by the Constitution of the United States which is not limited in its operation to the Congress of the United States, but which extends to every State in the Union. And I go one step further. It extends to every man in the Union, and devolves upon him the obligation to assist in the recovery of a fugitive slave from labor, who takes refuge in or escapes into one of the free States." Here it was in its baldest form: every citizen of the U.S. had the obligation not only to endorse slavery but to personally enforce the return of fugitives to their enslaved condition. 

In this debate, the famous orator and Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster made what some Northerners saw as a pact with the devil when he stood before the Senate and said, "in regard to the return of persons bound to service, who have escaped into the free States, . . . it is my judgment that the South is right, and the North is wrong." Webster's many antislavery supporters were stunned and never forgave Webster's compromising attitude toward the South. "I speak today for the preservation of the Union," Webster said, and his words ironically signalled for many abolitionists the worthlessness of a Union that could be held together only by continuing to enslave humans. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem, "Ichabod" (the name means "inglorious" in Hebrew) that registers the general sense of betrayal that many felt when Webster supported the Fugitive Slave Law.  Whittier also wrote a poem, "A Sabbath Scene," attacking the way that even the church sought to rationalize support for the law. 

During all of the 1850s, only 332 slaves were returned to their owners under the Fugitive Slave Law, but only 11 were declared free by federal commissioners. Such figures indicated to many in the North that the law was indeed rigged in favor of the slaveowners, and that federal commissioners could not resist doubling their wages by siding with the slaveowner instead of the fugitive slave. 

Throughout the 1850s, there were a number of notorious incidents where federal marshals arrested alleged fugitives who had been living in the North for many years. These incidents caused a general fear among the black population in the North, and many blacks living in the North fled to Canada; during the 1850s, the Negro population of Ontario doubled (to 11,000). Uncle Tom's Cabin was written in the atmosphere of the fear and outrage the Fugitive Slave Law caused. Antislavery lawyers challenged the law in a number of ways, but in 1859 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it, and a civil war seemed more and more inevitable. 

Early Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law

What is important to remember is that most citizens of the U.S., North and South, wanted to preserve the Union and were willing to compromise in order to accomplish this. Although there were many citizens who were outraged at the Fugitive Slave Law, during the first few years it was in effect public demonstrations against it were generally few and small, though some incidents--like the 1851 arrest in Boston of 17-year-old Thomas Sims, an escaped slave from Georgia, who was removed from the courthouse by 300 armed deputies and placed on a ship going to the South by 250 U.S. soldiers--became rallying points for abolitionists. But after 1851, most Northern states had decided they could live comfortably with the Fugitive Slave Law--legislatures in states including Delaware, Iowa, Illiniois, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New Jersey passed resolutions endorsing the law. Abolitionist fervor died down in the years just after the law was passed. 

The Anthony Burns Incident

But in 1854 things changed. President Franklin Pierce, who took office in 1853, began to enforce the law more strenuously than his predecessor, Millard Fillmore. Pierce's attorney general, Caleb Cushing, an anti-abolitionist, put the whole army and navy under orders to help enforce the law. His toughening of enforcement came to a head with the Anthony Burns case in 1854. No slaves had been returned to the South from Boston since Thomas Sims in 1851. Burns had escaped from slavery in Virginia and come as a stowaway on a boat to Boston. His owner found out his whereabouts and came North to claim Burns. Burns was arrested by a U.S. marshall and put under heavy guard in the courthouse. Meanwhile, a group of black and white abolitionists led by Thomas Wentworth Higginson raided the courthouse with guns, battering rams, and axes--they broke in and killed a deputy. President Pierce ordered U.S. troops to Boston to join local police and state militia to hold Burns and keep order; he also ordered a U.S. ship to stand by to take Burns back to the South. A vigilance committee offered to buy Burns out of slavery, and his owner was willing to sell, but the U.S. attorney would not approve the sale: the government had decided to make this case a model for how tough it could be. It would go to any extreme to enforce the law and demonstrate to the South that its rights would be upheld. 

On June 2, after Burns was found by the U.S. commissioner to be a fugitive, hundreds of U.S. infantry marched him through Boston to the Central Wharf. Stores were closed, buildings were draped in black, an American flag was hung upside down, a coffin was slung from a building, and over 20,000 people lined the streets to watch the procession of this single fugitive to the government boat that would return him to slavery. The government had spent as much as $100,000 (equivalent to two million dollars today) to enforce the law in this single case. The next year the vigilantes, including Higginson, who had attacked the courthouse were brought to trial, and all were acquitted on technicalities. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution on July 4, calling it a covenant with death because of its guarantee of slavery. It was clear that it would from now on be extremely difficult to convict antislavery agitators in Boston. The famous abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem "The Rendition" about the Burns incident, as did Whitman ("A Boston Ballad" )

The Fate of the Fugitive Slave Law

After the Burns incident, a number of Northern states passed new versions of personal liberty laws that worked to undermine the Fugitive Slave Law.  Whittier wrote a poem, "Arisen at Last," celebrating the bravery and honor of Massachusetts in passing such a law. 

The Fugitive Slave Law was not repealed, amazingly, until June 1864, nearly at the end of the Civil War and a year and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation. Even then, the debate in the Senate was rancorous, and the repeal passed only by a vote of 27 to 12. The law stayed in effect during the War because the Union government was anxious not to offend "loyal" slaveholders who demanded that their fugitives be returned. During the War, the problem of fugitive slaves in the North increased, and the problem of dealing with this human "contraband" was a major concern for the government and military. Often, the Union was relieved to be able to use the Fugitive Slave Law to return slaves to their slaveowners, even slaveowners in states that had seceded from the Union. And we need to remember that the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to those states hostile to the Union; in loyal slave states, slavery remained legal, and so the concern with fugitives continued. As late as June 1863 (six months after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted), fugitives were still being sent back to their masters in the South. 

Fugitive Slave Law: Some Facts

In 1850, just over 1,000 slaves escaped into free states. This represented about one of every 3,165 slaves in the United States. 

Most fugitive slaves did not come from the deep South, where most slaves lived. When you think about it, it makes sense that most fugitive slaves were from the border states--Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. This fact sharpened the sense of the border between free and slave states. 

Anti-Slavery Committees in the North actively helped slaves escape. In 1849, the New York Vigilance Anti-Slavery Committee helped 151 fugitives escape from the South. 

In the three months after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, around 3,000 blacks already in the North fled to Canada. 

In the first fifteen months after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, 84 fugitives were returned to their slaveowners by U.S. Marshalls, and only 5 were given their freedom. 

In 1851, in the Pennsylvania Quaker village of Christiana, a slaveowner seeking two fugitives was shot and killed by a group of armed black men. For some, this incident was the sign that Civil War was here: "Civil War--The First Blow Struck" was the headline of a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, newspaper, a decade before the Civil War actually began. 

In 1851, Thomas Sims, an escaped slave from Georgia then working in Boston, was ruled a fugitive by a federal commissioner and ordered returned to his master. 300 soldiers and armed deputives marched him from the Boston courthouse to the navy yard, where 250 U.S. soldiers placed him on a ship going to the South. 

The Fugitive Slave Law was not repealed until June 1864, a year and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and only a half year from the end of the Civil War. 

Click on the following links to learn more about Dickinson, Whitman, and the Fugitive Slave Law.


Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1970. 

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1984. 

Von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. 

Wolosky, Shira. Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.