Resistance of the Fugitive Slave Act

It was the close of the Mexican War, and the consequent large addition of territory to the United States, that brought the question of slavery-extension prominently before Congress, and opened that series of hostile debates which ended only with the Southern declaration of war. In the discussion of the treaty with Mexico, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania proposed to add to the appropriation bill the proviso that slavery should be prohibited in any territory which might be acquired in consequence of the war. This "Wilmot Proviso" was defeated in the Senate, but was received with much approbation in the North. The opponents of slavery organized themselves, in 1848, into the Free Soil party, which in the ensuing Presidential election polled 300,000 votes for its candidate, Van Buren. It sent Charles Sumner and Salmon P. Chase to the Senate, and a considerable number of members to the House of Representatives.

The rapid settlement of California and the West soon became a disturbing element in the situation. The people of Oregon organized a provisional Territorial government, from which slavery was excluded. A convention held in California in 1849 adopted a similar measure, and an application was made to Congress for admission of the Territory as a State with this proviso in its Constitution. A fierce debate followed, the Southern extremists insisting on the organization of California, Utah, and New Mexico, as Territories, with no restriction as to slavery. The Free Soilers and many others demanded that California should be admitted as a State, and that Territorial governments prohibiting slavery should be given to Utah and New Mexico. The dispute ended in a compromise bill proposed by Henry Clay, and accepted by Congress, in whose measures California was admitted as a free State, Utah and New Mexico organized as Territories without restriction as to slavery, the sale of slaves in the District of Columbia prohibited, and provision made for the return of fugitive slaves from Northern States.

For a while everything seemed settled: the compromise was spoken of as a finality, and a state of public feeling prevailed which greatly discouraged anti-slavery agitation. In the succeeding Presidential election the Free Soil ticket received but 151,000 votes, and the party ended its political existence, to be absorbed in 1855 into the Republican party, a new and strongly-consolidated organization, which was destined to become famous in the succeeding history of the country.

Yet the Fugitive Slave proviso of the compromise bill proved a rankling thorn which gave abundant activity to the anti-slavery sentiment in the North. For years previously slaves had been at intervals escaping to the free States, where they found numerous friends to secrete them or assist them in their journey to the safe soil of Canada. The organization for the aid and secretion of fugitive slaves in time became very complete, and received the name of the "underground railroad." Few slaves who crossed the border-line were recovered by their masters, partly from the efficient measures of concealment taken by their friends, and partly from the disinclination of the State and local authorities to assist pursuers, and the legal obstructions which were occasionally placed in their path.

Massachusetts passed a law to secure to such fugitives trial by jury. Pennsylvania passed a law against kidnapping. A decision was finally made in the United States Supreme Court which gave to the owner of a slave authority to recapture him in any State of the Union, without regard to legal processes. Yet little benefit was gained by the South from this decision. The States readily obeyed the mandate against interference. Some of them forbade their courts to hear claims of this character, and laid severe penalties on officers who should arrest or jailers who should detain alleged fugitive slaves. The difficulty thus produced was obviated in the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Commissioners were appointed by the United States to hear such cases, and marshals and their deputies were required to execute warrants for the arrest of fugitives, with a penalty equal to the full value of the slave if they should suffer one to escape after arrest. Other features of this bill increased its stringency, and under its provisions there was little hindrance to a free negro being kidnapped and taken South as a slave. The commissioners in certain cases refused to listen to evidence in favor of the freedom of the alleged fugitive.

A law thus enforced could not fail to arouse indignation, even in those devoid of anti-slavery sympathies. Cases of the arrest of fugitives took place in many parts of the Northern States, in which the requirements of ordinary law and humanity were disregarded, and the captives carried South with little or no effort to prove that they were the persons claimed as fugitives. Hundreds, in all parts of the North, who had viewed the controversy with in-difference and looked upon the abolitionists as a band of wild radicals, had their sympathies awakened by cases of this kind occurring in their own neighborhoods; and there can be no doubt that the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law, while it saved to the South a certain portion of its flying property, greatly added to Northern hostility to slavery, and backed up the ardent abolitionists with an extensive body of moderate sympathizers.

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