On this day, September 18, in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850, which President Millard Fillmore signed into law. The law gave the federal government the power to override attempts by several of the northern states to undercut the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The new law required federal marshals to execute warrants issued by federal judges, catch escaped slaves, and return them to their owners or hired agents (i.e., slave catchers). Now commissioners were also allowed to deputize individuals and form posses to catch escaped slaves. Anyone aiding and abetting slaves in their attempts to escape to the North and then to Canada could be fined.
The Compromise of 1850 contradicts the notion (still argued by some) that the South fought the Civil War in order to defend individual freedoms and states’ rights. In this case the South was all too happy to enlist the federal government in its effort to defend and even extend slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act expanded federal power in order to defend slavery by overriding the rights of northern states who resisted slavery and supported the individual human rights of escaped slaves. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts fought for the Compromise, hoping that it would preserve the union and salve over the split caused by the spread of slavery into the West. Abolitionists, however, criticized the moral bankruptcy of compromising with slavery and saw that the Fugitive Slave Act clarified the contradictions the nation faced. Webster lost credibility and the Underground Railroad grew stronger as northerners opted to resist the new law. Just eight years later an up-and-coming young lawyer from Illinois would, as he accepted his party’s nomination for the Senate, put forth this position: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”