Advertisement of a Runaway Slave, 1823

Historical Context
The Fugitive Slave Law was different from other laws of the United States. One unique characteristic was its stance on the philosophy of state’s rights.  According to this law, the federal government was responsible for tracking down and returning runaway slaves to their Southern owners, even if the runaways had arrived in a state or territory where slavery was illegal. This federal involvement in a state-decided law was unprecedented.

So how did such an odd and wholly uncharacteristic law pass Congress? The Fugitive Slave Law was seen as a compromise between the Northern and Southern states as part of the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, while New Mexico and Utah were added as slave territories. The compromise also set the borders for Texas, also a slave state. The slave states were not pleased with this arrangement, since although New Mexico and Utah were allowed to be slave territories, when they applied for statehood most likely they would be entered as free states.  Also, by setting the northern border of Texas, the compromise constrained its area, which had magnificent cotton plantations at the time.

Ironically, it was the state of Virginia that promoted the Fugitive Slave Law. During the whole era of debate, Virginia firmly believed that a state was protected under the Tenth Amendment to decide independently, without federal interference, if it would become or remain a slave state. However, as Virginia pushed the Fugitive Slave Law, it became obvious that the state's beliefs concerning the Tenth Amendment and federal interference were not consistent. Virginia’s endorsement of federal intervention as part of the Fugitive Slave Law would later discredit its rationale for seceding from the Union. When the state seceded, its justification was because that the federal government was interfering with its rights as a state. Virginia wanted, it seemed, to use the power of the federal government only when it was convenient.

Like many pieces of legislation in the era, the Fugitive Slave Law did nothing to protect African American rights. African Americans who had either been born free, had successfully run away, or had bought their freedom were all vulnerable to being captured and returned to slave owners in the south.  Since African Americans were not allowed to testify in court, a free African American had no means of explaining the error. This loophole also allowed dishonest slave owners to claim slaves that were not theirs in the first place.

However horrible the Fugitive Slave Law was, it did have a few benefits to the abolitionist movement. First, the law brought the horrors and unfairness of slavery to the North. People were, for the first time, seeing slaves. This awakened many sympathizers who had previously been ambivalent. Also, men like Fredrick Douglass and Henry Highland, both runaway slaves and abolitionists, began campaigning for the end of slavery.
Essential Question
How do economic and political systems undermine attempts to achieve social justice?
Check for Understanding
Identify the main idea of this advertisement and evaluate the impact of this advertisement on an individuals civil rights.
[click to enlarge]
Civil War. Advertisement of a Run-A-Way Negro, New York State Archives, NYSA_A3045-78_A3625
Document Description
A newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave, printed in the Ulster Plebian, Kingston, New York, September 17, 1823.
  1. What does the newspaper ad show?
  2. What section of the newspaper do you think it would be in?
  3. Why doesn’t the runaway slave have a last name?
  4. What does “harbor or employ him” mean?
  5. Why wouldn’t the slave owner want that?
  6. What hardships would you encounter if you were a runaway slave?
  7. Who and what might you see along the way (geography, weather, people, animals)?
Historical Challenge
Rewrite the U.S. Constitution to indicate who was really included in “We the People”.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: If a runaway slave had a 1-in-15 chance of making it to freedom in Canada, out of 100 slaves about how many would make it?
Science: How did the cotton gin work? Did this invention require more or fewer slaves?
English Language Arts: Write a persuasive letter concerning the legality of the Fugitive Slave Law in regards to a state’s constitutional rights.
  1. Greene, Meg. Slave Young, Slave Long. Lerner Publishing Group, February 1999. ISBN:0822517396

  2. Ringgold, Faith. Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky. Crown Books for Young Readers, December 1995. ISBN:0517885433
  3. Winter, Jeanette. Follow the Drinking Gourd. Knopf Publishing Group, January 1992. ISBN:0679819975
  4. Kamma, Anna. If You Lived When There was Slavery in America. Scholastic, Inc., January 2004. ISBN:0439567068