Editorial Highlights from the desk of Clifton Harris The Fugitive slave law

In the spring of 1850 Charles Lenox Redmond, the famed orator and abolitionist from Massachusetts, lectured to a small crowd of attendees at the Ford Street Baptist Church on the current position of black people in America. He talked about the fugitive slave bill (then before Congress), the anticipated action of the cup provides committee which was composed of 13 men set to draft legislation based on some to Henry clay’s proposal to ease sectional tension between slaves’ states and free states the debate regarding next session of Cuba and Canada and the revival of the colonialization of movement. Perhaps, for Remond, what he saw that was most troubling was the increase influence of the slave power, the term used during the antebellum period to describe the political and economic power of the slaveholding class. He believed that 1850s ushered in a new and dangerous phase particularly for the abolitionist movement. According to the north star, Remond chatted his audience for their inactivity and indifference to the degradation of their race in general. He insisted that black Americans perpetuated their own oppression by their apathy. In the face of rapidly changing political climate and the growth of slavery creeping further across US territory black people would have to become more forceful in their pursuits of emancipation and equality. For Remond, black reformers needed to possess 2 essential qualities to combat slavery and racism; the will to agitate and the readiness to risk physical assault next paragraph new legislation changed everything even for those who wanted to remain dispassionate. The one factor that pushed black leadership and their followers to immediate action was the fugitive slave law. The law did something quite remarkable for the abolitionist movement, and in particular African Americans; it made violence a necessary alternative this is the best illustrated by major abolitionist centers such as Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. In a sense all three states vied for the honor of being the place where the fugitive slave law could, in effect, the unenforceable. Some of the most famous confrontations regarding the law involve the Christiana Resistance of 1851 in Pennsylvania, the Jerry Rescue in Syracuse, New York, and the capture and return of Anthony burns in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition, the individual stories of runaway slaves who employed the tools of violence to gain freedom or both revealing and gripping. 

Some of the most compelling examples of political violence occurred through resistance, self-defense, and collective defense against the law. The enslaved continued to resist through running away despite the law, while free black Americans resisted by engaging in various forms of civil, and sometimes not so civil, disobedience to protect their liberty. Self-defense was even more important in the face of a slave catcher. History reveals that it was not always the fugitive who risked their lives, but the slave catcher who is tempted to capture those in question. Additionally collective defense led to the development of black vigilance groups determine to protect fugitives and even seek out kidnappers who threaten to return them. The individual or collective actions of black Americans shaped both conversations and the cause of sectional tensions. The law eventually required black Americans to become political and active in their own defense by patronizing anti-slavery newspapers, joining black anti-slavery society’s, producing autobiographical accounts of their enslavement and escape, attending conventions and dead agitated for their civil and political rights, and organizing resistance to the fugitive slave law, leading to higher level of black militancy. Local abolitionist communities transition to national hotbeds of abolitionist activism as result of the fugitive slave law period indeed last greatest contribution was the acceleration of antebellum political violence period

Just several months after Remond’s lecture, on September 18, 1850, Congress enacted a much more aggressive fugitive slave law. The law had been on the books since 1793 and required the return of runaway slaves. In Section 2, clause 3 of the United States Constitution, the fugitive slave clause stated that no enslaved person living in a slave state could escape to a free State and we consider discharge of their service or labor. The law required that a fugitive slave be returned to his or her rightful owners and that slave owners maintain their property rights in both the slave holding South and throughout the country. A fugitive slave was still a slave and therefore could be returned to their rightful honor at any time from any state. Furthermore, any child born to of a fugitive mother was also considered property of the slave owner.

The law, however, was rarely enforced, perhaps most notably when even President George Washington could not secure the return of his former slave judge after several attempts. For decades fugitives had used the north as a safe haven, and they intended to protect their newfound livelihoods. By 1850, an estimated 1000 runaway slaves per year were scaping into the major cities or free territories where they could begin new lives. Many enslaved people sought new identities or raised the money to purchase their freedom after they fled. These self-emancipated men and women enriched their lives through marriage and education of their children. Their goal was simple; To live and inter slavery life.

The law was also fraught with controversy over states’ rights versus federal law because many northern states sought to protect runaways and free black people from kidnapping. Due to years of confrontation between slave States and free states, senators Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Weber of Massachusetts composed the compromise of 1850 to prevent the union from erupted over political tension regarding slavery. Under the leadership of Stephen A Douglas of Illinois, the 1850 compromise required five provisions; California would enter the union as a Free State, slavery would be permitted in Utah and New Mexico, the slave trade in Washington DC would be prohibited parenthesis although slavery was still legal parentheses, and finally the fugitive slave law would be revised and revamped to ensure its enforcement.

The strengthened fugitive slave law of 1850 was different in many ways. For one, it had teeth, there were several serious consequences for anyone who obstructed the return of free fugitive slaves. The first the Superior Court of each state had the power to appoint commissioners who were responsible for reclaiming and returning fugitive slaves to their masters. Second the court of fiscals obtained compensation according to the judges’ decision; $10 if the judge returned the slave to the proclaimed owner and $5 if the judge decided there was insufficient proof to do so. Third if a court commissioner refused to fulfill his responsibility to return fugitive slaves, he could face upwards of $1000 in fines. Moreover, the fugitive and question escaped from the nonconsenting commissioner, it would be subject to additional fines for the market value of a slave. 4 the bill declared; all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of the slave. The fugitive slave launched a nationwide debate and disturbed what many northerners and abolitionists saw as their own status quo barrack wiring white and black northerners to aid in returning fugitive slaves, which forced them to become de facto employees working on behalf of southern planters. Any person who knowingly hindered the arrest of a fugitive slave could be fined more than $1000 in jail for six months. To reclaim an enslaved slave person, the owner needed only to make his plea to the court commissioner and the process could begin. Once captured the accused had no right to trial by jury. The edict made it clear that no hearing under this act could allow the testimony of an alleged fugitive to be admitted as evidence; Except in cases involving mistaken identity the master’s testimony was all that was allowed.

The new law was also retroactive. If an enslaved person had escaped as a child or had lived longer free than in bondage, it did not matter. These provisions put the lives of every African American throughout the country in jeopardy. Frederick Douglass wrote colored people who had been free all their lives felt themselves very insecure in their freedom. He explained that the law required only the oaths of any two villains for a man Born Free to legally be consigned to slavery for life. Thus, even free black Americans were susceptible to kidnapping or false accusations. Douglas added, while the law was a terror to the free it was still a greater terror to the escaped bondmen. For fugitives he declared there was no peace. Asleep or awake at work or at rest in church or market he was liable to surprise and capture. It is likely that many former enslaved people feared that one day in a crowd they would recognize a familiar face or worse still be recognized themselves no one had become more relentless than the slave catcher and slaveholders were unyielding in their efforts to reclaim their property. In a newspaper article from former slave and having abolitionist William Wells brown parodied biblical scripture when he claimed resist the devil and it is said that he will run away from you resist slaveholder and he will run to you. According to the line of thinking slaveholders were worse than the devil and everything about the new law favored the slave owner.

The revised fugitive slave law was proslavery reaction to years of personal liberty laws, slave runaways, and vigilance committee activity. The black frustrations grew throughout the 1840s, activists turned to more practical measures, such as politics and fugitive slave efforts. Every radical speech pamphlet, or rhetoric escaped served to generate proslavery fears and certainly inspiring the revamping of the fugitive slave law. In this way we see how many radical embolisms worked; Not by changing hearts and minds but by causing paranoid South to overcorrect in ways that garnered sympathy for abolition and embolism. The South looked like a bully especially too those who still spoused nonresistance. 

Arguably this was the abolitionist movement needed the law resurrected the movement, which had been fatigued by years of stagnant advancement toward immediate abolition. The passage of the fugitive slave law was the final turning point in a failed campaign for moral suasion and signaled the need for radical political advocacy that Garrison often opposed. Further move it became clear that the new law could not be combatted without force. Black abolitionist fully expected to do just that.

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