Even before watching “12 Years A Slave” I was surprised after listening to people talk about it and reading their reactions to it. It’s amazing how many Black people don’t have a clue about our history and how common the capturing and kidnapping of Black runaway slaves (as well as free Blacks) and taking them into slavery was, and the years of controversy it created in this country over it.
Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, but because it had been weakened by various states and other laws, and the fact that the number of runaway slaves was increasing every year into the hundreds, the Southern plantation owners turned up the heat on the president and Congress to pass a stronger fugitive slave law or they were going to secede from the union. They simply could not run their business of slavery profitably with so many slaves escaping to the north every year.
So in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Law was passed as a part of a compromise stating that all escaped slaves upon capture be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in the law. It penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave and made them liable for a $1,000 fine, which equals $28,000 today.
Law enforcement officers were required to arrest persons suspected of being runaways on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
Officers who captured a runaway slave were entitled to a hefty bonus. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal Marshall to capture an escaped slave. Since any suspected slave was not eligible for a trial the law resulted in kidnapping of free Blacks into slavery because suspected fugitive slaves had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.