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[Detail] Experience and personal narrative of Uncle Tom Jones...1858

Slavery and the Territories: The Compromise of 1850 and The Fugitive Slave Law

The territorial debate was ultimately resolved when Congressmen Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Stephen Douglas introduced a series of bills known as the Compromise of 1850. This legislation admitted California as a free state in the Union and abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia. On the other hand, it also organized the territories of New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah without any reference to slavery, thereby leaving the territories open to the possibility of sanctioned slavery at a later date. Furthermore, the Compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, designed to assist in the recovery of runaway slaves by increasing the number of federal officers and by denying fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial.

  • What is the role of a jury trial in a democracy?
  • On what basis did the Fugitive Slave Law deny slaves the right to a jury trial? (Search on Dred Scott to learn more).
  • What did this law imply about the value of slaves’ lives in the eyes of the courts?
  • Besides ensuring the return of fugitive slaves, what did slaveholders gain in terms of federal and political support from the Fugitive Slave Act?
  • Do you think that the Fugitive Slave Law was constitutional?

The term, “Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” in the Subject Index yields a number of pamphlets debating the merits of the legislation. Horace Mann's Letters challenge the constitutionality of eliminating the possibility of a jury trial. On the other hand, Reverend John Lord’s sermon, “‘The Higher Law,’ in its Application to the Fugitive Slave Bill,” notes that slavery was a fact of life in the Old Testament and early American history: “The people of the North . . . bound themselves to respect the institution of slavery as it then existed . . . [S]uch an arrangement was not void as being against a higher law, and . . . is constitutional and lawful, and cannot be resisted upon any moral grounds,” (page 11).

A refutation of Lord’s argument appears in the pamphlet, “Slavery in its Relation to God” while Ichabod Spencer’s sermon, “Fugitive Slave Law, The Religious Duty of Obedience to Law,” reinforces the social and ethical value of accepting a federal law:

The question is not, whether slavery is right, or the Fugitive Slave Law right . . . The question is, shall Law be put in force, and the government of the country stand; or shall Law be resisted, and the government of the country disobeyed, and the nation plunged into all the horrors of civil war? If Law cannot be executed, it is time to write the epitaph of your country!

page 29

  • Do you think that the Fugitive Slave Law should have been obeyed?
  • How do Lord and Spencer define and prioritize the obligations of civil law and moral law?
  • Which, if any, of the abolitionist groups do you think would have called for adherence to the Fugitive Slave Law?
  • Abolitionists created the Underground Railroad to transport slaves to freedom, which became even more important with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. How would you characterize movements such as the Underground Railroad in terms of their relation to civil and moral laws?
  • How do Lord and Spencer’s arguments hold up when examining other times when civil disobedience became a tool for social change (e.g., the civil rights movement of the 1960s)? Did their arguments hold more relevance in the 1850s because of the state of the nation at that time?
  • What is the moral value of obeying civil law? Do you think that there are situations when breaking civil law is moral? When? What are the benefits and risks of doing so?