Congress passes the Compromise of 1850

Reward poster 1850
Wed, 1850-09-18

*On this date in 1850 the United States Congress passed the second Fugitive Slave Law act. A similar act was enacted in 1793, both legislations were intended to help the recapture and transportation of runaway slaves to their owners and to commit the federal government to the legitimacy of holding slaves as property.

The 19th century legislation was an attempt to appease the South and was called the Compromise of 1850 revising the Fugitive Slave Bill. This created commissioners under federal court appointment to judge fugitive cases. They had active roles in ensuring retrieval of escaped slaves. Federal marshals also were enjoined to help recapture slaves, under $1000 penal fines for dereliction.

If a runaway escaped while in a marshal's custody, the marshal had to forfeit the slave's full value to the owner. Persons guilty of abetting slave escape were subject to fine and a maximum prison sentence of six months. As in southern courts, slaves could not testify against whites, but a master's circumstantial evidence was easily admissible. Federal commissioners received $5 for proslave verdicts, $10 for decisions favorable to masters. If warranted by a threat of interference, federal officers were authorized to accompany the slave out of the area of risk.

Due to northern resentments, both the acts of 1793 and 1850 faced legal challenges, primarily in the legal disputes over state personal liberty laws. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), the U. S. Supreme Court had ruled against a Pennsylvania citizenship statute and upheld the first fugitive slave law's constitutionality. Nevertheless, some states continued to pass laws strengthening the applicability of habeas corpus writs and prohibiting state officials from accepting jurisdiction under federal law.

In Ohio, the chief objective was less a desire to expand black rights than to ensure that outright kidnapping was not condoned. (Ohio did not repeal its virulently discriminatory Black Code until 1849.) Southerners objected strenuously to personal liberty laws as a violation of sectional equity and reciprocal trust; but the 1850 act, seen in the North as punitive and tyrannical, only aroused greater sectional animosities.

Northern opposition was most dramatically illustrated when an abolitionist Boston mob tried to rescue Anthony Burns, a fugitive from Virginia, in May 1854. The mission failed. Commissioner Edward Loring had Burns returned to slavery, and U. S. troops escorted him through sullen crowds to a waiting ship. The effort cost the federal government more than $100,000.

The Encyclopedia of African-American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York
ISBN 0-8160-3289-0