The Fugitive Slave

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The Fugitive Slave. By: John Houston. 1853.

The Fugitive Slave Act, passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, was intended to resolve the tension surrounding the issue of slavery. Its provisions, however, ensured that it would not have such an alleviating effect.¹ The Act “denied the alleged fugitive any right to jury trial, not even guaranteeing it in the jurisdiction from which he had escaped.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 131. It also allowed a court to appoint a commissioner to decide a fugitive slave’s case. See id. That commissioner was entitled to a $10 fee where the “alleged fugitive was delivered to the claimant,” but if the slave was set free, the commissioner would receive only a $5 fee, creating an incentive for returning fugitives to slavery. Id. Finally, the Act gave federal marshals the power “to summon all citizens to aid in enforcement of the Act.” Id. citing Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill, 1968). Read more

The Genesis of the Underground Railroad

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Justice Joseph Story.

Justice Joseph Story wrote a decision in Prigg v. Pennsylvania that would put the United States Supreme Court in a possession of relieving northern state officials of responsibility “for returning fugitive slaves, and increasingly northern state legislatures instructed them to do so.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 654.

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