What does "Fugitive Slave Act" mean in African American History?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term “Fugitive Slave Act” generally refers to the law that was passed in 1850.  This law has two meanings for African American history.

First, the law means that slaves after 1850 had the deck stacked against them even more than it had been before.  The Fugitive Slave Act made it much easier for fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners even after they had made it to free states.  It even made it more likely that free African Americans would be forced into slavery.  The law dedicated the national government to helping return fugitive slaves to their owners.

Second, however, the law might have helped to bring an end to slavery.  The Fugitive Slave Act was very unpopular in the North, even among people who were not actually abolitionists.  It helped to inspire Harriet Ward Beecher to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped to inflame passions in the North against the South.  In these ways, the law helped to bring about the Civil War.  That war, of course, put an end to slavery.

Thus, the Fugitive Slave Act has two major meanings in African American history.