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The Fugitive Slave Law, n.d. ca. 1850

Under the Fugitive Slave Law, Congress supported slaveholders’ rights to recover escaped slaves. The law authorized federal commissioners to arrest and return fugitives solely on the basis of a claim by the purported owner, without testimony or trial. The law fined or imprisoned citizens who aided runaways, and it did not protect free blacks wrongly arrested.

Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

The Fugitive Slave Law, n.d. ca. 1850

Balancing Sectional Interests

In crafting the Compromise of 1850, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky sought to sustain the Union by balancing sectional interests. Northerners supported the provisions outlawing the slave trade in the District of Columbia and admitting California to the Union as a free state; Southerners favored the stricter Fugitive Slave Law and the continuation of slavery in the nation’s capital. After Congress rejected Clay’s original omnibus bill on the territories, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois engineered passage of its key provisions as separate resolutions.