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[Detail] The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.

The essays, speeches, accounts of court rulings, correspondence, guide books, and other items collected in The Nineteenth Century in Print provide insight into debates over legislation that foreshadowed the Civil War, including the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Other materials in the collection chronicle debates surrounding coeducation, women's suffrage, immigration laws, and Reconstruction.

Compromise of 1850: The Fugitive Slave Act

A series of bills, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, attempted to maintain the balance of power between free and slave states after additional U.S. territories were acquired at the end of the Mexican-American War. A search on the phrase, Compromise of 1850, produces Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster’s March 7, 1850 Speech supporting the legislation “for the preservation of the Union . . . [and] the restoration. . . [of] harmony which make the blessings of this Union so rich and so dear to us all,” (page 6).

The Compromise of 1850 also included the Fugitive Slave Act, however, which threatened to increase the growing rift between free and slave states. In the 1850 census, slaveholders reported approximately 1,000 runaway slaves as “lost property.” The Fugitive Slave Act was created to assist the recovery of this "property." The Act increased the number of federal officers on duty, denied slaves the right to a jury trial, and made it possible to prosecute anyone assisting a fugitive slave, with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

During the Proceedings of the United States Senate, Northern senators suggested amendments to the law that would provide fugitive slaves the right to a jury trial and require a “writ of habeas corpus,” that is, a court order, to enforce an arrest. Senator Davis of Massachusetts argued that the writ of habeas corpus was important to prevent slave states from falsely imprisoning free black citizens. Massachusetts, Davis explained, provides blacks with “the rights of citizens . . . and [as such], they . . . may claim the privileges and immunities of citizens of South Carolina, or in any other State that belongs to the Union,” (page 5). South Carolina Senator A.P. Butler responded that in his home state, “A free man of color . . . does possess many civil rights . . . except what may be called the complete right, of citizenship. And this right the legislation of no other State can give him in the State of South Carolina,” (page 6).


  • What do you think it means to have “many civil rights” but not “the complete right of citizenship”? What might these "many civil rights" have been? What is meant by "the complete right of citizenship"? How does it relate to the right to a jury trial and the requirement of a "writ of habeas corpus"?
  • What would the implications be upon the Fugitive Slave Act if a “free man of color” was recognized as a citizen in a free state?
  • How do you think that two Congressmen of the same government could have had such different concepts of African-American citizenship and of state legislation?
  • How does the Senators' dispute reflect the sectional disagreements of the Civil War? What sectional philosophies and priorities does each Senator's argument reflect?
  • What does the senators' discussion suggest about the balance of power between the states and the federal government at that time?

Both proposed amendments to the Fugitive Slave Act were ultimately rejected, but the debate in Congress foreshadowed the national conflict over the Act. A search on the phrase, fugitive slave law, yields abolitionist sermons such as “The Higher Law” (1850) and “The Fugitive Slave Bill; or, God’s Laws Paramount to the Laws of Men” (1851), calling on the public to “disobey and repudiate this Bill,” (page 15).

As people searching for fugitive slaves traveled north, some abolitionists resorted to violence to undermine the Fugitive Slave Act. The Boston Slave Riot (1854) describes the storming of a courthouse to free runaway slave Anthony Burns. After order was restored and Burns remained in custody, abolitionists collected “$1200 - the amount specified by the owner as the price of the man” and bought Burns’s freedom (page 19).

  • How did passing the Fugitive Slave Act, without its proposed amendments, settle the dispute over the meaning of Afrcian-American citizenship and the power of state legislation?
  • Why do you think that slaveholders sold their recovered slaves to abolitionists? What does this exchange suggest about a slaveholder’s interest in his “lost property” and a black person’s “civil rights”?
  • How do you think that abolitionists reconciled defying slavery for treating people as property and paying “the price of the man” to ensure a fugitive slave’s freedom?
  • Does such a purchase undermine one’s objection to slavery? Could it even amount to a participation in and reinforcement of the institution? Do you think that this was an effective way to combat the slave trade?
  • Do you think that there is a difference between opposing the Fugitive Slave Law and opposing slavery itself?
  • Do you think that the Compromise of 1850 was effective in minimizing the sectional disputes within the Union? Why or why not?