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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fugitive Slave Law

From website of Dickinson College
One of the major issues facing slaveholders in the antebellum period was runaway slaves.  The law protected the right of masters to their property and required those who came in contact with runaways to report them and assist in returning them to their masters.  Despite this law, many northern abolitionists refused to comply and many state passed laws in opposition to the national fugitive law.  Consequently, many slaves fled to the north and lived as free citizens without much fear of being forced to return to the southern plantations.  Because of this conflict between northern and southern constituencies, Henry Clay of Kentucky developed the Compromise of 1850, which included a tougher Fugitive Slave Law.  Among its provisions, the right to a jury trial was denied to all fugitives, more federal help assisted in securing warrants, and up to a $1000 fine and six months in jail for those assisting runaway slaves.

One of the consequences of the law was more intense sectionalism and disdain between the north and south.  Whereas the law sought to bring peace, it created more conflict as northerners refused to comply.  Another result was a rapid increase in the activity of the Underground Railroad, with many of the slaves deciding to leave the country altogether and live in Canada.  The country was clearly traveling down the slippery slope to war.  In UTC, Stowe vividly describes the conflict between those trying to retrieve fugitives and those trying to assist their escape.

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