New Stuff, Ponderings

Local reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Kaufmann, Theodor, and Hoff & Bloede. Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law. , 1850. New York: Publ. by Hoff & Bloede. Photograph.

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the United States Congress. In it, lawmakers wrote a law which required any person to assist in the return of any Black person said to be an escaped slave. In the lead up to the Civil War, it was a last grasp at keeping the states united despite the deepening divides over slavery. It did not succeed.

One local newspaper, The Union, was certainly in an uproar over the new law –

Fugitive Slave Act reaction in the Union (Saco, Me.) – October 4, 1850 – pg. 2 col. 4-5

and included similar negative reactions from around New England.

From the Union (Saco, Me.) – October 4, 1850 – pg. 2 col. 4-5

The Union protested as an abolition-supporting newspaper as well as the impact locally having to do with the coastal shipping trade, which was a huge part of the economy here and how our area interacted with the south prior to the textile mills*.

Letter to the editor of the Union regarding the Fugitive Slave Law – October 4, 1850 – p.2 col. 6
Biddeford side of the Saco River as it looked during this time (1854) [Image 774a]

Although this law was very unpopular here, it also should be understood that the north was not purely a haven for Black people – whether they were born free, or were freed (or escaped) slaves. It was better than what they were leaving, one hopes – but it’s important to say that it was still exchanging one set of problems (slavery) for those of a different nature (segregation, prejudice, racism).

The Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, and a search of the local newspaper archive for “Fugitive Slave” shows that it never stopped being debated and written strongly about over the following 20+ years.

The law surfaces again and again throughout American history, and CSPAN’s American History TV has a number of recorded talks given by scholars and teachers that are worth watching to learn more about this significant piece of U.S. history and the aftermath of it.

*NOTE. The establishment of the textile industry here, which fed into the need for southern cotton and all the problematic issues that came with it, is a whole. ‘nother. story. To start to examine this important aspect of our local history – recognizing and reconciling our part in an industry that fed off of slavery – I suggest the following article:

Bailey, Ronald. “The Other Side of Slavery: Black Labor, Cotton, and Textile Industrialization in Great Britain and the United States.” Agricultural History 68, no. 2 (1994): 35-50. Accessed February 4, 2021.

[One can get a free JSTOR account to access it as an “independent researcher” – great for those of us not currently affiliated with universities or colleges. An opportunity, so take advantage!]

You can read, search, save and share for yourself, a large quantity of our local historic newspapers – including the October 4, 1850 issue of The Union referenced above – right here: