Fugative Slave Act 1850

The Manstealing Law Explained

The Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers.

This was one of the most controversial elements of the 1850 compromise and heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy”. It required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law” for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

In Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, the editors referred to use of the law as “Manstealing” in reference to the Bible verse, Exodus 21:16 that reads: And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.

An April 24, 1851 poster warning the "colored people of Boston" about policemen acting as slave catchers.

An April 24, 1851 poster warning the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers.

We copy from the Lowell American the following abstract:

It is necessary that the people shall be acquainted with the kidnapping law recently enacted by Congress, and as we cannot keep in type the entire law, we have made a brief but correct synopsis of it. Here it is:

But in the first place let us give Daniel Webster’s endorsement of the bill. The following is from his speech of the 7th of March, 1850:

“Every member of every Northern Legislature is bound by oath to support the Constitution of the United States; and this article of the Constitution which says to these States that they shall deliver up fugitive slaves is as binding an honor and in conscience as any other article; and no man fulfils his duty, under his oath, in any State Legislature who sets himself to work to find excuses, evasions, escapes from his constitutional duty. My friend at the head of the Judiciary Committee has a bill upon the subject now before the Senate, with some amendments to it which have been offered. I propose to support that bill with all proper authority and provisions in it, to the fullest extent – to the fullest extent.”

Now here is the substance of the “Bill”:

Duties of Commissioners.
Commissioners who have been or shall be appointed by the Circuit Courts of the United States, are authorized and required to exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act. – Sec. 1.

Appointment of Commissioners.
The Superior Court of each organized Territory shall have the same power to appoint Commissioners as the Circuit Court of the U.S., and the commissioners appointed by these Superior courts are to possess the powers conferred upon those appointed by the Circuit Courts. – Sec . 2.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.

Officers to be appointed.
The Circuit Courts and the Superior Courts shall have power to enlarge the number of commissioners with a view to afford reasonable facilities to seize fugitives . – Sec . 3.

Duty of Commissioners.
The Commissioners shall grant certificates to claimants, upon satisfactory proof, with authority to take fugitives to the State or Territory from which they have fled. – Sec . 4.

Duties of Marshals – Penalties.
Marshals and Deputy Marshals are commanded to obey and execute all warrants and precepts under this act, under penalty (for refusal or neglect) of a fine of $1000 to the use of the claimant. – Sec . 5.

Marshal’s penalty for slave’s escape.
If a fugitive shall escape from a marshal or deputy, after his arrest, with or without his assent, he shall be liable on his official bond to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant for the full value of the service or labor of the fugitive . – Sec . 5.

By-standers required to aid the man-stealers.
Commissioners are authorized to appoint persons to execute their warrants, with authority to summon and call to their aid the by-standers or posse comitatus when necessary. All good citizens are commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of the law whenever their services may be required. – Sec . 5.

Fugitives may be seized without process.
When a man has escaped from service or labor, his claimant may pursue and reclaim him, either by procuring a warrant from the court or commissioner, or by seizing him without process and taking him before the tribunal. – Sec . 6.

Case to be decided summarily.
When the fugitive is thus taken, it shall be the duty of the commissioner to decide the case in a summary manner, and upon satisfactory proof that the fugitive does owe service or labor to the claimant, the commissioner shall issue his certificate, authorizing the claimant to take the fugitive , and to use such reasonable force as is necessary to carry him back to slavery. – Sec. 6.

Certificate to be sufficient evidence.
A deposition or affidavit, certified in proper from by the court of the State from which the fugitive escaped, shall be considered satisfactory evidence of the fact of escape, and also of the identity of the fugitive . These certificates shall be conclusive of the right of the claimant to remove his prey, and shall prevent all molestation by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or any other persons whomsoever. – Sec. 6.

Fugitive’ s evidence not to be taken.
In no trial or hearing under this act shall the fugitive’ s testimony be admitted in evidence. – Sec. 6.

Penalty for obstructing the man-stealer.
Any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder or prevent the claimant, his agent, or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him from arresting the fugitive , with or without process, shall be subject to a fine not exceeding $1000, and imprisonment not exceeding 6 months, and shall moreover pay to the claimant the sum of $1000 for each fugitive so lost. – Sec. 7.

Penalty for rescuing a man from the manstealers.
Any person who shall rescue or attempt to rescue the fugitive from custody, is liable to the same penalty. Sec. 7.

Penalty for harboring a man from the pursuit of the manstealers.
The Commissioner shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars if he shall deliver the fugitive into slavery, but only five in cases where he shall not deem the proof sufficient to send him back. – Sec . 7.

Manstealers to be aided in case of an attempt to rescue.
Upon affidavit by the claimant that he has reason to apprehend a rescue, the officer making the arrest shall take him into slavery, and shall employ as many persons as are necessary to overcome the force – the United States to pay the bill. – Sec . 9.

What constitutes testimony.
When a fugitive has fled, his claimant may make satisfactory proof of the fact to any court of record in the State or Territory from whence he escaped, and the said court shall cause a record to be made of the fact, and a description of the fugitive and a transcript of this record shall be full and conclusive evidence in the tribunal where the fugitive may be found, and upon its being produced, the fugitive shall be delivered up. In the absence of such transcript of record, the claim shall be determined by other satisfactory proof, competent in law. – Sec. 10.

Approved Sept. 18, 1850, and signed by Millard Fillmore.


Collection: African American Newspapers
Publication: The North Star
Date: October 24, 1850

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