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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850


Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

One of the four bills proposed by Henry Clay and passed by Congress that comprised the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law is frequently cited by historians as an example of how far the South would go to preserve the institution of slavery.

The concept of the Fugitive Slave law dates back to the Constitution, which made slavery not a Southern institution but a national institution. In order to pass the other parts of the bill, Henry Clay needed to give the South it's carrot, and that was the Fugitive Slave Act.

Long a proponent of "states rights" the South agreed to cede to the federal government more rights than it had ever agreed to. Under the act the United States could deputize a citizen without consent, and make them look for and return slaves regardless of their political beliefs. The act also gave the power of hearing cases involving fugitive slaves to the federal government, not local authorities, ceding more power to the central government than any other act passed by Congress.

Used to derail the Underground Railroad, the Fugitive Slave Act did not have the effect the Southerners had hoped for. The number of slaves travelling to Canada dropped briefly, then continued to grow.

More importantly, the act precipitated an unusual reaction in the North. To many Northerners, the abstract nature of slavery was not an issue, but giving the federal government the kind of rights that the Fugitive Slave Act did was an issue. Suddenly, more Northerners were willing to help runaway slaves, perhaps not so much because they understood the slave's plight as much as a backlash towards a burdensome government.

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Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was added in 2005



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