During the 1850s, the Southern insistence on the Fugitive Slave Act had presented abolitionists their greatest gift since the gag rule, giving them a new focus for agitation and one that was far more charged with emotion. The Fugitive Slave Act did more than strengthen the hand of slave-catchers; it offered a strong temptation to kidnap free blacks. The law denied alleged fugitives a jury trial and provided that special commissioners got a fee of $10 when they certified delivery of an alleged slave but only $5 when they refused certification. In addition federal marshals could require citizens to help in enforcement; violaters could be imprisoned up to six months and fined $1000.

"This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by poeple who would read and write," Ralph Waldo Emerson marveled in his journal. He advised neighbors to break it "on the earliest occasion." The occasion soon arose in many places. Within a month of the law's enactment, claims were filed in New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Detriot, and other cities. Trouble soon followed. In Detriot only military force stopped the rescue of an alleged fugitive by an outraged mob in October 1850.

There were relative few such incidents, however. In the first six years of the fugitive act, only three fugitives were forcibly rescued from the slave-catchers. On the other hand, probably fewer than 200 were returned to bondage during the same years. More than that were rescued by stealth, often through the Underground Railroad. Still, the Fugitive Slave Act had the tremendous effect of widening and deepening the antislavery impulse in the North.

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