Rigged: The Fugitive Slave Act


Today is Juneteenth when we celebrate the emancipation of slaves and the abolishment of slavery in the United States. I thought I’d talk about the Fugitive Slave Act since this went hand-in-hand with slavery in America in the mid-19th century.

There’s a scene near the beginning of the Lucile Ball/Desi Arnez comedy film TheLong, Long Trailer that I think sums up The Fugitive Slave Act. Arnez is waiting for his wife to come back to their trailer in a trailer park with a friendly elderly man. The man is chatting away about getting a trailer for himself and his wife and asks Arnez about his. Arnez barks, “Rigged. If you want to sound like an old-timer, you call it rigged!” 

Why was the Fugitive Slave Act rigged? Because it was designed to make fugitives of people who weren’t fugitives, to begin with. For a start, African American slaves who escaped to the North weren’t committing a crime, as fugitives do. They were out to create a life for themselves and, hopefully, free their families from slavery and many (like Frederick Douglass) went on to fight for the freedom of all slaves. These women and men were courageous survivors, not fugitives.

This wood engraving shows a group of 28 slaves who banded together to flee plantations located in Maryland, arms and ready for battle. This occurred in 1857, showing that the Fugitive Slave Act was definitely not doing what it set out to do (encourage slaves to stay in bondage).

Photo Credit: Mass slave escape from Cambridge, MD, 1857, wood engraving: Washington Area Spark/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

It also made fugitives of people who tried to help escaped slaves. Many states issued very stiff penalties for those caught aiding African-Americans escaping from slavery, such as six months imprisonment and a five hundred dollar fine (in today’s money, worth about $18,500). People were warned against even talking to potential escaped slaves, thus provoking fear and hate among the African American community in the Northern states. The law made brave and courageous fighters for freedom and justice out to be betrayers.

And what about government officials? Escaped slaves who were caught were technically subject to a trial, but it was far from a fair one. The Fugitive Slave Law stipulated they could not testify on their own behalf nor could they have a trial by jury. They were tried by special commissioners who were, as many government officials were in the 19th century, as corrupt as they come. The law gave these officials $10 (roughly, $370 today) if they ruled in favor of the slaveholder but only half that amount if they ruled in favor of the slave. So it’s no surprise that the majority of commissioners ruled in favor of the slave going back into bondage, no matter what the evidence showed. The Fugitive Slave Act made the very body we are supposed to rely on for law and order corrupt. 

And the greatest irony? The goal of the Fugitive Slave Act was to “keep slaves in their place,” or, encourage slaves not to leave their place of bondage. Not only did it not do this (it’s estimated that in 1850, the year the act went into effect, more than 100,000 slaves escaped) but it enforced the idea that slavery was a gross violation of human rights and encouraged more African-Americans and their supporters to fight for the end of slavery and helped eventually lead into the Civil War. 

Want to read about some real fugitives and not rigged ones? Try out my Adele Gossling Mysteries series! The Carnation Murder is the first book and is available now. Book 2, A Wordless Death is coming in July and is up now for preorder.

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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May writes engaging, fun-to-solve historical cozy mysteries. Her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she adores sourdough bread, Ghirardelli chocolate, and the area’s rich history. Tam’s current project is the Adele Gossling Mysteries. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, reading self-help books, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes.