Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Law and Legal Definition

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (“Act”) declared that all runaway slaves should be brought back to their masters. The Act empowers the federal commissioners to conduct hearing to grant or deny certificates that permit slave owners to retake fugitive slaves. This Act was created as part of the compromise of 1850, which happened between the southern slave holding interests and Northernn Free-soilers. The Compromise of 1850 was a series of five bills that were intended to stave off sectional strife. Its goal was to deal with the spread of slavery to territories in order to keep northern and southern interests in balance. Here is a summary of the five bills:

1. California was entered as a free state;

2. New Mexico and Utah were each allowed to use popular sovereignty to decide the issue of slavery. In other words, the people would pick whether the states would be free or slave;

3. The Republic of Texas gave up lands that it claimed in present day New Mexico and received $10 million to pay its debt to Mexico;

4. The slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia; and

5. The Fugitive Slave Act made any federal official who did not arrest a runaway slave liable to pay a fine. This was the most controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 and caused many abolitionists to increase their efforts against slavery.

The Act required states to which the slaves have escaped were obligated to return them to their masters upon their discovery, and subjected persons who helped runaway slaves to criminal sanctions. Thus the Act provides that:

1. The alleged fugitive was not allowed to testify at the hearing;

2. Commissioners received twice as much compensation (ten dollars) for granting certificates than denying them;

3. Federal marshals were financially liable for not trying to execute the warrants and for allowing fugitives to escape;

4. Penalties were increased for obstructing slave owners or helping fugitives, and included imprisonment.