|Posted by Clifton Bradley on May 8, 2011 at 11:05 AM|
Even at the height of the Underground Railroad, fewer than one thousand slaves from all slave-holding states were able to escape each year, a quantity much smaller than the natural annual increase of the enslaved population. Though the economic impact was small, the psychological impact upon slaveholders of an informal network to assist escaped slaves was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, the responsibility for catching runaway slaves fell to officials of the states whence the slaves came, and the Underground Railroad thrived.
With heavy political lobbying, the Compromise of 1850, passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War, stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law. Ostensibly, the compromise redressed all regional problems. However, it coerced officials of free states to assist slave catchers if there were runaway slaves in the area, and granted slave catchers national immunity when in free states to do their job. Additionally, free blacks of the North could easily be forced into slavery, whether they had been freed earlier or had never been slaves. Suspected slaves were unable to defend themselves in court, and it was difficult to prove a free status. In a de facto bribe, judges were paid more ($10) for a decision that forced a suspected slave back into slavery than ($5) for a decision that the suspected slave was in fact free. Thus, many Northerners who would have otherwise been able and content to ignore far-away regional slavery chafed under nationally-sanctioned slavery, leading to one of the primary grievances of the Union cause by the Civil War's outbreak.