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Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1851

The new Fugitive Slave Law, far stricter than previous legislation, pleased Southern slaveholders and outraged Northern abolitionists. It authorized federal agents to arrest and return anyone identified as an escaped slave. In this illustration, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison defends an African American woman against a slave catcher and Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, who championed the law.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1851

The Compromise of 1850

After the Mexican War, the question of whether to allow or prohibit slavery in the new western territories threatened to rupture the Union. Slavery’s extension to new states could give the slaveholding South a majority in the Senate; its prohibition would favor the North. In the Compromise of 1850, Congress admitted California as a free state; settled boundaries of Texas and New Mexico; created a territorial government for Utah; upheld the rights of slaveholders over escaped slaves; and banned slave trading in the nation’s capital.