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Fugitive Slave Act Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Joelle Mumley
Beginning in the late 1700s, Southern states tried to capture escaped slaves and punish people who helped slaves escape to free Northern states. Fugitive Slave Acts were passed to make this practice legal. Learn about the Fugitive Slave Acts.

Fugitive Slave Acts

For many years in the United States, African Americans were sold as property and made to work as slaves. But, as the years went on, the Northern states began to understand that slavery was wrong. Therefore, in the mid to late 1700s, Northern states freed African Americans, but the Southern states still had slaves. These two different views of slavery led to the passage of the two Fugitive Slave Acts, which were sets of laws that were put into place because the Southern states wanted to legalize the capture and return of escaped slaves.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

The first Fugitive Slave Act allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves within the United States. Congress enacted this law in 1793. As part of this act, anyone who helped slaves escape could also be punished with a $500 penalty, which was a lot of money back then. When this law was passed, many free African Americans who were living in the Northern states were captured and falsely returned to slavery in the Southern states.

The details of the 1793 law include specifics of how slave owners and people working for them could search for escaped slaves within the borders of the free states. Once caught, the slave owners and their workers would need to bring the slaves before a judge and provide paperwork to prove their ownership.

The people living in the Northern states were not happy. They did not want people to come searching their property and communities for African Americans who might have been slaves. Some people went as far as to say that the law legalized kidnapping. Many Northern states also created a network of safe houses to help slaves escape to freedom, which were known as the Underground Railroad.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

There were many people in the Northern states who did not agree with the first act; however, the Southern politicians did not listen. They wanted to make it harder for slaves to escape. Therefore, the Southern politicians pressured Congress to pass the second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This law placed even harsher punishments of $1,000 on individuals who helped slaves escape to the Northern free states. Regardless of these harsher punishments, more and more slaves were escaping to freedom with the help of people in the Northern states.

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