During the debates that led to the Armistice of 1850, many abolitionists urged Congress to eradicate slavery from the District of Columbia, making the quite reasonable argument that a institution so contrary to republican principles deserved no protection in the capital of the republic. Southern radicals, viewing such a proposal as the opening wedge of an abolitionist invasion, raised the alarm. A federal government that could emancipate slaves in DC might, under the right circumstances, end or exclude slavery in other federal jurisdictions, including the newly captured Mexican lands as well as at military outposts in slave states. Surrounded on all sides by slaveholders in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, a District rid of slavery would — or so it was feared — communicate the abolitionist poison into the surrounding black belt, where the institution was already receding.

When Henry Clay introduced the first batch of legislation to resolve the numerous sectional disputes antagonized by the recent war, he proposed a renewed federal commitment to recovering slaves who had absconded northward. Clay’s bill, which collapsed with all the rest in the spring of 1850, included the provision that alleged fugitives would be permitted the Potemkin luxury of jury trials in the South. When the “compromise” effort was renewed later that summer, James Murray Mason, a first-term senator from Virginia, reintroduced a fugitive slave law that explicitly denied the accused of the right to a habeas writ, the right to speak on his or her own behalf, and the right to plead before a jury. Court-appointed commissioners — not judges — would issue rulings that could not be appealed. Adding fuel to the civil libertarian fire, the act effective deputized the entire population of the so-called free states, where the threat of $1000 non-compliance fines would apply the proper spur to comply with the new law.

Mason’s fugitive slave bill passed, along with bills securing the admission of California as a free state, settling the Texas-New Mexico border dispute, organizing the territories of Utah and New Mexico on the basis of “popular sovereignty,” and eradicating slave auctions in Washington, D.C. The bill passed the Senate 27-12, with an astonishing 21 abstainers; in the House, the margin of victory was 109-75, with 48 congressmen unable to bring themselves to vote. Some of the abstainers — Northern Whigs mostly — were literally hiding in their offices or elsewhere in the Capitol during the vote.

The next day, September 18, President Millard Fillmore signed the bill, prompting denunciations from the abolitionist Lewis Tappan among many others:

But now we behold him basely truckling to the dictation of the South, instead of promptly and manfully VETOING the Act, for the reason that affixing his signature to it would be a violation of his oath of office, a violation of the Constitution, and an outrage upon Civil Liberty.

He had not, it seems, integrity and independence enough to act out the convictions of his understanding. He has thus shown that, instead of being the dignified chief of a nation, he is but the instrument of Daniel Webster, the manager of the acting President, and the tool of a party that is succumbing to the Slave Power, in order to secure their votes at the next Presidential election. For shame!

Charles Beecher denounced the law as “an unexampled climax of sin,” a “monster iniquity of the present age,” “the vilest monument of infamy of the nineteenth century.” Beecher’s sister Harriet soon began dramatizing the issue in a series of short sketches, which later appeared in novel form to some small renown.

Over the next decade, “man-stealers” extradited more than 330 African Americans from the North while releasing a mere dozen. Some of the law’s victims had escaped years earlier. Others had quite probably never been slaves in the first place, including a black woman from Philadelphia who was claimed — along with her six children — by a Maryland slaveholder who’d “lost” her more than two decades prior to her arrest. Outraged opponents seized on these injustices and noted that the law had extended slavery into the free states. Many pointed out as well that the law — by forcing Northern compliance with the Slave Power — effectively enslaved the North as a whole.

Throughout the free states, organized resistance bedeviled the exercise of the act. In Boston, more than 500 US soldiers and armed deputies were required to evade the local Vigilance Committee and secure the extradition of Thomas Sims in April 1851. In Christiana, Pennsylvania, more than twenty African Americans fired on a group of slave hunters, killing one and wounding several others. Fillmore dispatched marines and federal marshals to arrest dozens of blacks and a handful of white Quakers, all of whom were charged with treason. The Treason Trials quickly collapsed under their own farcical weight. Many in the north, however, would not soon forgive the suggestion that resistance to the Slave Power should count as an act of criminal disloyalty.

Meantime, Northern hostility to the Fugitive Slave Act plucked the strings of Southern honor. Though in practical terms the “problem” of fugitive slaves was borne disproportionately by the border states, the howls of outrage were greatest in the Deep South, where fire-eaters called for state conventions to weigh the question of disunion.