What does  "Fugitive Slave Act" represent when we talk of African American history?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In African American history, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 represents two different things.  First, it represents the fact that African Americans could not, historically speaking, count on being treated justly by the American government.  Second, it also represents the idea that there are those among the white community who will stand up against injustice at times.

The Fugitive Slave Act was created as part of the Compromise of 1850.  The South was upset because Northern states did not do much to return runaway slaves to the South, even though they were supposed to under the Constitution and an earlier fugitive slave act.  The act was terribly unjust.  First, it meant that slaves who risked their lives in search of freedom would simply be returned to their owners.  Second, it was set up to make it very easy for slaves (or even free blacks) to be returned to slavery.  The law was set up, for example, so that judges in charge of deciding whether a person was a runaway slave got paid more if they ruled the person was a fugitive than if they did not.  This helps to show how unjust the American legal system has been at times.

However, there is a better aspect to this law.  This is the fact that many Northerners reacted very strongly to it.  There were instances of violent mobs attacking those who tried to carry the law out.  Northerners were not necessarily in favor of abolishing slavery, but they were at least willing to resist some forms of injustice against African Americans.