As it turned out, one piece of the Compromise of 1850—the Fugitive Slave Act—proved to be a disaster for the badly splintered country. At first, slaveholders in the South were quite satisfied with the law. It made the task of retrieving runaway slaves living in the North easier, and it called for severe penalties, including large fines and prison terms, for anyone who provided escaped slaves with food, shelter, or any other kind of assistance. Furthermore, it commanded all U.S. citizens "to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required."
But within a few months, it was clear that the Fugitive Slave Act infuriated Northern abolitionists, which ultimately hurt the Southern cause. The law had been designed so that a new class of federal officials, called commissioners, could help slaveholders capture runaways. But the law also made it possible for so-called "slavecatchers" to grab free blacks and claim that they were actually escaped slaves. Once captured, free blacks who were accused of being fugitives were given little opportunity to defend themselves. They had no right to a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf. Instead, they were brought before a commissioner, who decided whether these alleged fugitives would go free or be forced into enslavement in the South. This situation was made even worse by the fact that a commissioner received a higher salary from the government if he decided that a black brought before him was an escaped slave. As a result, many free blacks were falsely imprisoned and forcibly enslaved on cotton and sugar cane plantations in the South.
Angry Northern abolitionists vowed to fight the Compromise of 1850 at every turn. Even more importantly, however, the law turned thousands of other Northerners against slavery. "The pitiful spectacle of helpless blacks being seized in the streets and dragged off to slavery could unsettle the most prejudiced northern
After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, many Northern abolitionists vowed to ignore or challenge the law. One of the best-known examples of this defiance took place in Boston, Massachusetts, in February 1851, when a group of black freemen united to free a fugitive slave named Shadrach, who had been captured by federal marshals.
During his enslavement in Virginia, Shadrach had been known as Frederick Wilkins. But after escaping to Massachusetts in 1850, he adopted the name Shadrach and found work as a waiter at a coffeehouse in Boston, one of the North's centers of abolitionist activity. His slave past was discovered, however, and on February 15, 1851, he was seized by federal marshals and taken to a nearby courthouse. But within hours of his arrest, a group of black men broke into the courthouse and overpowered the marshals who were guarding Shadrach. His rescuers then hid him away and used the Underground Railroad to deliver him to Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Act could not be enforced.
Shadrach eventually settled in Montreal, Quebec, where he opened a restaurant. Back in the United States, meanwhile, his dramatic rescue triggered a storm of controversy, especially when federal prosecutors could not convince jurors to convict eight men (four black, four white) who were charged with helping Shadrach reach Canada. Clergyman Theodore Parker (1810-1860) spoke for many happy abolitionists when he wrote that "Shadrach is delivered out of his burning, fiery furnace. I think [his rescue] is the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea [in the Boston Tea Party] in 1 773." But President Millard Fillmore denounced the action, and enraged Southerners insisted that such defiance (bold resistance) of the Act could not be tolerated. "Every exertion [effort] must be made to cause the laws to be respected," stated a February 21, 1851, editorial in the Richmond Enquirer. "Now is the time to act with spirit; now is the time to assure the whole nation that the laws must be respected, and that 'the Union must be preserved.' A striking and decided example [of punishment has so far been lacking] to repress [restrain] the fury of the fanatics, and prevent a repetition of similar offences."
white," wrote Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. "Northern mobs, which once had directed their fury at abolitionists, now attacked slave catchers, broke into jails, and rescued fugitive slaves. . . .
The national government tried vigorously to prosecute the [Northern white] law-breakers responsible for such defiance, but northern juries refused to convict."
As Americans in the North came to see the Fugitive Slave Act as little more than government-sponsored kidnapping, their support for the abolitionist movement soared. Moving testimony from fugitive slaves who came North via the Underground Railroad further added to proabolition feelings. Then, in 1852, a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) called Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. Uncle Tom's Cabin was an enormously popular book that provided a sympathetic portrait of enslaved blacks. Written by Stowe in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, the novel became the most important work of literature in abolitionist history.
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