Effect of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

An illustration of fugitive slaves escaping from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The second Fugitive Slave Law was a major factor in bringing the overthrow of slavery. It drew many new supporters to the cause of abolition and led to the Civil War.

Its provisions placed the handling of fugitive slave cases solely under federal jurisdiction, and like the first law passed in 1793 denied alleged fugitive slaves the right to a trial by jury and the right to testify on their own behalf. All that was required for the arrest of an alleged fugitive slave was identification by two witnesses who confirmed under oath that the individual was indeed a fugitive from slavery. It punished those aiding fugitive slaves with a fine of $1,000, double the first law,and six months in jail for each offense. Adding force was a $1,000 fine imposed on federal marshals, who failed to follow an order to arrest a fugitive slave, and liability for the value of any slave who escaped from them. It also encouraged a prejudicial review by judges, paying them $10 for every case in which a fugitive slave was remanded to the claimant and $5 for those in which the claimant was denied.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Turned Every Citizen Into a Slave Catcher

But most intolerable to northerners was that it required citizens, if called upon by authorities, to assist in the capture of a fugitive slave or face a penalty similar to the one imposed on those caught aiding a fugitive slave–making everyone a slavecatcher by law.

It frightened not only fugitive slaves who had settled in the North but also free blacks who feared the law’s disregard for the rights of the accused would increase the activity of kidnappers. “It is impossible to describe the anguish, terror and despair which fill the minds of our colored fellow-citizens,” William Lloyd Garrison wrote in The Liberator.

Fugitive slaves especially were in such haste that they left behind many of their worldly possessions. They had good reason, considering the increased activities of kidnappers, like the attempt in Providence, R.I. to kidnap Henry “Box” Brown, the famed fugitive slave who had shipped himself to freedom through the mail in a box and shortly after took a boat to England. Both free and fugitive made a hasty pilgrimage to Canada, including Frederick Douglass, Jermain Loguen, and Harriet Tubman.

Thousands of Blacks in the North Fled to Canada

Reports of the exodus of blacks were widespread. The Buffalo Republic stated that “a party of 51 colored men, women, and children from Pittsburgh under the command of B.G. Sampson . . . crossed the Ferry at Black Rock into Canada. They were all armed `to the teeth,’ and on their way to Toronto . . . . It is also stated that 1500 have already organized and are on their way to Canada from the States . . .”

In Toronto, a correspondent wrote: “Indeed it is impossible to say to what extent this emigration may not be carried, as but few negroes in the free States will be secure from the meshes of the new law, which is so framed that by a little hard swearing a planter may successfully claim almost any negro as his property . . .”

A Utica dispatch reported: “Sixteen fugitive slaves on a boat for Canada, passed through this city yesterday. They were well armed and determined to fight to the last”

One of the more horrible results of the law took place in Syracuse. A fugitive slave, his wife, and infant child were riding a canal boat. After being told in jest that his master was about to board the boat to apprehend him, the fugitive slave cut his throat, then jumped off the boat with his wife and child, who drowned.

Some groups left en masse, like black congregations in Buffalo, Rochester, and Detroit, where 130, 112, and 84 members respectively of a single Baptist church in each city fled in fear, many leaving their belongings behind.

Blacks in the North Armed Themselves Against Slave Catchers

Those who did not leave armed themselves in preparation for resistance. Gerrit Smith wrote a message for fugitive slaves in the North to slaves in the South that was read publicly at a Convention in Cazenovia three weeks before the passage of the second Fugitive Slave Law: “We cannot furnish you with weapons,” it read in part. “Some of us are not inclined to carry arms, but if you can get them, take them, and before you go back with bondage, use them if you are obliged to take life—the slaveholders would not hesitate to kill you, rather than not take you back into bondage.”

In New York City, more than 1,500 protesters filled the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church to hear William P. Powell denounce the law and hear others vow to fight to the death to remain free.

“My colored brethren, if you have not swords, I say to you, sell your garments and buy one,” said John Jacobs, a fugitive slave from South Carolina. “They said they cannot take us back to the South; but I say under the present law, they can; and now I say unto you, let them take only your dead bodies.”

More reports of blacks in arms came from the Green Mountain Freeman, referring to Oswego, NY, and Springfield, MA. In the latter city, where about 50 fugitive slaves resided, thousands gathered at a town hall meeting to discuss the suspected presence of slave catchers.

In the three months after the passage of the law, an estimated 3,000 American blacks fled to Canada. It was only the beginning of a mass exodus that continued throughout 1851 and continue steadily thereafter up through the Civil War.


  1. Tom Calarco, The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region (McFarland and Company, Inc., 2004).
  2. Fred Landon, “The Negro Migration to Canada after the Passing of the Fugitive Slave Act” (Journal of Negro History, Jan. 1920: 22-37).