The Fugitive Slave Act and the Underground Railroad
The Fugitive Slave Act required federal marshals and deputies to aid in the capture and return of escaped slaves throughout the United States. It was included in the Compromise of 1850 as a way of appeasing the South, but it served only to inflame the angry passions of abolitionists in the North. Antislavery and anti-Southern sentiment skyrocketed in the Northern states as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, and moderate abolitionists joined their more militant brothers in protesting what they saw as federally subsidized kidnapping.
Abolitionists feared the new law would lead to terrible abuses against Negroes living in the North, and they were right. There are reports of Southern bounty hunters arresting and sometimes kidnapping blacks who had lived in the North as free people or claiming children born in freedom to escaped slaves as “property” of their parents' original owners. As a result, efforts on the part of abolitionists to protect blacks living in the North increased dramatically.
The Underground Railroad was a loose system of safe havens that helped slaves escape to the North. Runaway slaves usually traveled the Underground Railroad by night, walking or riding from one safe house, or “station,” to another until they were able to cross the border into a free state. The most frequently traveled routes ran through Ohio, Indiana, and western Pennsylvania. Many slaves continued on until they were safely in Canada, which refused to deport escaped slaves.
A black family entering Union lines with a loaded cart Photo courtesy of the National Archives (200-CC-657)
Abolitionists participating in the Underground Railroad were subject to harassment and even imprisonment. But as the issue of slavery became increasingly important, more and more abolitionists volunteered their time and homes.