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The Fugitive Slave Act, September 18, 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act mandated the return of runaway slaves,   regardless of where in the Union they might be situated at the time of  their discovery or capture. Along with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the  ratification of Kansas' admission for free statehood, this legislation  is part of the chain of events which culminated in the American Civil  War.

Section 1: Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United  States of America in Congress assembled, That the persons who have been,   or may hereafter be, appointed commissioners, in virtue of any act of   Congress, by the Circuit Courts of the United States, and Who, in  consequence of such appointment, are authorized to exercise the powers  that any justice of the peace, or other magistrate of any of the United  States, may exercise in respect to offenders for any crime or offense  against the United States, by arresting, imprisoning, or bailing the  same under and by the virtue of the thirty-third section of the act of  the twenty-fourth of September seventeen hundred and eighty-nine,   entitled "An Act to establish the judicial courts of the United States"   shall be, and are hereby, authorized and required to exercise and  discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.

Section 2: And be it further enacted, That the Superior Court of each organized   Territory of the United States shall have the same power to appoint   commissioners to take acknowledgments of bail and affidavits, and to  take depositions of witnesses in civil causes, which is now possessed by  the Circuit Court of the United States; and all commissioners who shall  hereafter be appointed for such purposes by the Superior Court of any  organized Territory of the United States, shall possess all the powers,  and exercise all the duties, conferred by law upon the commissioners  appointed by the Circuit Courts of the United States for similar  purposes, and shall moreover exercise and discharge all the powers and   duties conferred by this act.

Section 3: And be it further enacted, That the Circuit Courts of the United States  shall from time to time enlarge the number of the commissioners, with a   view to afford reasonable facilities to reclaim fugitives from labor,  and to the prompt discharge of the duties imposed by this act.

Section 4: And be it further enacted, That the commissioners above named shall have  concurrent jurisdiction with the judges of the Circuit and District   Courts of the United States, in their respective circuits and districts   within the several States, and the judges of the Superior Courts of the   Territories, severally and collectively, in term-time and vacation;  shall grant certificates to such claimants, upon satisfactory proof  being made, with authority to take and remove such fugitives from  service or labor, under the restrictions herein contained, to the State  or Territory from which such persons may have escaped or fled.

Section 5: And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and  deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued  under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any  marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other  process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute  the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one  thousand dollars, to the use of such claimant, on the motion of such  claimant, by the Circuit or District Court for the district of such   marshal; and after arrest of such fugitive, by such marshal or his  deputy, or whilst at any time in his custody under the provisions of  this act, should such fugitive escape, whether with or without the  assent of such marshal or his deputy, such marshal shall be liable, on  his official bond, to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant,  for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive in the   State, Territory, or District whence he escaped: and the better to  enable the said commissioners, when thus appointed, to execute their  duties faithfully and efficiently, in conformity with the requirements  of the Constitution of the United States and of this act, they are  hereby authorized and empowered, within their counties respectively, to  appoint, in writing under their hands, any one or more suitable persons,  from time to time, to execute all such warrants and other process as may  be issued by them in the lawful performance of their respective duties;   with authority to such commissioners, or the persons to be appointed by  them, to execute process as aforesaid, to summon and call to their aid  the bystanders, or posse comitatus of the proper county, when necessary  to ensure a faithful observance of the clause of the Constitution  referred to, in conformity with the provisions of this act; and all good  citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and  efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be  required, as aforesaid, for that purpose; and said warrants shall run,  and be executed by said officers, any where in the State within which they are issued.

Section 6: And be it further enacted, That when a person held to service or labor  in any State or Territory of the United States, has heretofore or shall   hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States,  the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due, or his,  her, or their agent or attorney, duly authorized, by power of attorney,  in writing, acknowledged and certified under the seal of some legal  officer or court of the State or Territory in which the same may be  executed, may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person, either by  procuring a warrant from some one of the courts, judges, or   commissioners aforesaid, of the proper circuit, district, or county, for  the apprehension of such fugitive from service or labor, or by seizing  and arresting such fugitive, where the same can be done without process,  and by taking, or causing such person to be taken, forthwith before such  court, judge, or commissioner, whose duty it shall be to hear and  determine the case of such claimant in a summary manner; and upon  satisfactory proof being made, by deposition or affidavit, in writing,  to be taken and certified by such court, judge, or commissioner, or by   other satisfactory testimony, duly taken and certified by some court,   magistrate, justice of the peace, or other legal officer authorized to   administer an oath and take depositions under the laws of the State or   Territory from which such person owing service or labor may have  escaped, with a certificate of such magistracy or other authority, as  aforesaid, with the seal of the proper court or officer thereto  attached, which seal shall be sufficient to establish the competency of  the proof, and with proof, also by affidavit, of the identity of the  person whose service or labor is claimed to be due as aforesaid, that  the person so arrested does in fact owe service or labor to the person  or persons claiming him or her, in the State or Territory from which  such fugitive may have escaped as aforesaid, and that said person  escaped, to make out and deliver to such claimant, his or her agent or  attorney, a certificate setting forth the substantial facts as to the  service or labor due from such fugitive to the claimant, and of his or  her escape from the State or Territory in which he or she was arrested,  with authority to such claimant, or his or her agent or attorney, to use   such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary, under the   circumstances of the case, to take and remove such fugitive person back  to the State or Territory whence he or she may have escaped as  aforesaid. In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of  such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in  this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of  the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove  such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall   prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued  by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.

Section 7: And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and   willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or  attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them,  from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or  without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue,  such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant,  his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully  assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority   herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so  owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape  from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons  legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such  fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person,  after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive  from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences,   be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and  imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction  before the District Court of the United States for the district in which  such offence may have been committed, or before the proper court of  criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any one of the organized  Territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by   way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the  sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to  be recovered by action of debt, in any of the District or Territorial  Courts aforesaid, within whose jurisdiction the said offence may have  been committed.

Section 8: And be it further enacted, That the marshals, their deputies, and the   clerks of the said District and Territorial Courts, shall be paid, for  their services, the like fees as may be allowed for similar services in  other cases; and where such services are rendered exclusively in the  arrest, custody, and delivery of the fugitive to the claimant, his or  her agent or attorney, or where such supposed fugitive may be discharged  out of custody for the want of sufficient proof as aforesaid, then such  fees are to be paid in whole by such claimant, his or her agent or  attorney; and in all cases where the proceedings are before a  commissioner, he shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for  his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to  the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases  where the proof shall not, in the opinion of such commissioner, warrant  such certificate and delivery, inclusive of all services incident to  such arrest and examination, to be paid, in either case, by the   claimant, his or her agent or attorney. The person or persons authorized  to execute the process to be issued by such commissioner for the arrest  and detention of fugitives from service or labor as aforesaid, shall  also be entitled to a fee of five dollars each for each person he or  they may arrest, and take before any commissioner as aforesaid, at the  instance and request of such claimant, with such other fees as may be  deemed reasonable by such commissioner for such other additional  services as may be necessarily performed by him or them; such as   attending at the examination, keeping the fugitive in custody, and  providing him with food and lodging during his detention, and until the  final determination of such commissioners; and, in general, for  performing such other duties as may be required by such claimant, his or  her attorney or agent, or commissioner in the premises, such fees to be  made up in conformity with the fees usually charged by the officers of  the courts of justice within the proper district or county, as near as   may be practicable, and paid by such claimants, their agents or  attorneys, whether such supposed fugitives from service or labor be  ordered to be delivered to such claimant by the final determination of  such commissioner or not.

Section 9: And be it further enacted, That, upon affidavit made by the claimant of  such fugitive, his agent or attorney, after such certificate has been   issued, that he has reason to apprehend that such fugitive will he  rescued by force from his or their possession before he can be taken  beyond the limits of the State in which the arrest is made, it shall be  the duty of the officer making the arrest to retain such fugitive in his  custody, and to remove him to the State whence he fled, and there to  deliver him to said claimant, his agent, or attorney. And to this end,  the officer aforesaid is hereby authorized and required to employ so   many persons as he may deem necessary to overcome such force, and to  retain them in his service so long as circumstances may require. The  said officer and his assistants, while so employed, to receive the same  compensation, and to be allowed the same expenses, as are now allowed by  law for transportation of criminals, to be certified by the judge of the  district within which the arrest is made, and paid out of the treasury  of the United States.:

Section 10: And be it further enacted, That when any person held to service or labor  in any State or Territory, or in the District of Columbia, shall escape   therefrom, the party to whom such service or labor shall be due, his,  her, or their agent or attorney, may apply to any court of record  therein, or judge thereof in vacation, and make satisfactory proof to  such court, or judge in vacation, of the escape aforesaid, and that the  person escaping owed service or labor to such party. Whereupon the court  shall cause a record to be made of the matters so proved, and also a  general description of the person so escaping, with such convenient   certainty as may be; and a transcript of such record, authenticated by  the attestation of the clerk and of the seal of the said court, being  produced in any other State, Territory, or district in which the person  so escaping may be found, and being exhibited to any judge,  commissioner, or other office, authorized by the law of the United  States to cause persons escaping from service or labor to be delivered  up, shall be held and taken to be full and conclusive evidence of the   fact of escape, and that the service or labor of the person escaping is  due to the party in such record mentioned. And upon the production by  the said party of other and further evidence if necessary, either oral  or by affidavit, in addition to what is contained in the said record of  the identity of the person escaping, he or she shall be delivered up to  the claimant, And the said court, commissioner, judge, or other person  authorized by this act to grant certificates to claimants or fugitives,  shall, upon the production of the record and other evidences aforesaid,   grant to such claimant a certificate of his right to take any such  person identified and proved to be owing service or labor as aforesaid,  which certificate shall authorize such claimant to seize or arrest and  transport such person to the State or Territory from which he escaped:  Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be construed as requiring  the production of a transcript of such record as evidence as aforesaid.  But in its absence the claim shall be heard and determined upon other  satisfactory proofs, competent in law.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, July 1998

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