The Clay Measures: Something for the South (Part Two, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850)

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

As aforementioned, Henry Clay offered the South a new, strengthened Fugitive Slave Act. Written by Senator James Mason (D-VA), the bill rejected Clay’s suggestion that accused fugitives receive a jury trial in the South after being taken. It maintained the old system that an owner or hired agent of an owner had only to swear out an affidavit to a commissioner, but reached much farther. These commissioners received $10 for every fugitive sent South or $5 for every person set free.

The law overruled the personal liberty laws that proliferated in the 1840s, specifically laying out that:

In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.

No fugitives testifying. No molestation by judicial processes like habeus corpus. The once profane power of federal law to overrule that of supposedly sovereign states when that law threatened slavery stood transformed into the sacred act of so doing when that law preserved slavery.

Under the new law, all law enforcement officials had to cooperate with slave-catchers and comply with the act. For the first time, enforcement of the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause (Article IV, Section 2) became a specific duty of the local, state, and federal constabulary. The previous regime relied on private agents and local compliance rested largely on local willingness. Failure to comply carried with it a thousand dollar fine ($26,630.94 in 2011 money). No more preventing state officials from assisting slave-catching.

The new act reached beyond just law enforcement, though. It authorized and empowered commissioners and their deputies to conscript any able-bodied person to aid them in catching and detaining accused fugitives. The law explicitly included casual bystanders.

One can easily imagine the scene: a black person races past you walk down the street with a slave-catcher or the sheriff in hot pursuit. He yells, “You, seize that man!” Whatever your purpose a moment before, you now stood deputized and obligated by force of law to help see that fleeing man shipped off to slavery.

But what if you said no? The nation offered you a fine of up to a thousand dollars and up to six months in prison to “any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent” a claimant, agent of the claimant, or anyone else so engaged from seizing an accused fugitive. Harboring or hiding fugitives, even if it didn’t involve directly obstructing capture, won the same sanction. In addition the claimant could seek civil damages against you for up to one thousand dollars per fugitive.

In effect, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 drafted every person in the North into the slave patrol. Even disinterested bystanders who ignored slavery or didn’t mind it so long as the institution remained out of their sight now became party to its enforcement, drafted in an America a decade away from its first draft.

2 comments on “The Clay Measures: Something for the South (Part Two, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850)

  1. Do you have any stats on how often people were fined? How many fugitive slaves were recovered?

  2. I don’t have statistics on the fines, but I do have the fugitives. During the decade of the law’s operation, 332 accused fugitives got sent South and only 11 were found to be free. That’s from McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and he cites Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law 1850-1860. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 echoes the numbers and the Campbell cite.

    I imagine a work like Campbell’s would include the fine data if it’s at all available, but he’s available only a costly reprint ($45 for a paperback of less than 300 pages) that I don’t have access to. Someone might have replicated the work since (Campbell wrote in the 60s.) but both Battle Cry and Road to Disunion are 20+ years old. Amazon shows a few potentials for that which are more reasonable. I might look into them at a later date.

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