No Compromise in Rochester, 1850

Frederick Douglass was a realist. In The North Star Newspaper, February 8, 1850, he wrote an attack on Henry Clay’s series of eight resolutions to amend the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Clay, a Senator from Kentucky, had introduced these resolutions to provide a basis for the settlement of “all questions of controversy…arising out of the institution of slavery, upon a fair, equitable, and just basis.” Clay’s resolutions did not become law as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, until September 18, 1850, but Douglass could see what was coming.

His article spoke against the “impudence” of slaveholders believing that the government has the right to introduce slavery into new territories, such as California and new states becoming part of the U.S. Douglass wrote, “Shame on such insolent pretensions! Slavery has NO RIGHTS. It is a foul and damning outrage upon all rights, and has no right to exist anywhere, in or out of the territories.” He went on, “The Earth is the Lord’s and “righteousness should cover it,” and he who concedes any part of it to the introduction of slavery is an enemy of God.”

Douglass condemned the unwillingness of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and the requirement that it could only be abolished on the assent of the slaveholders of Maryland, which was already a slave state. And, he questioned “as to the benefit which freedom will derive from the proposal that Congress had no power to prohibit or obstruct the trade in slave between slaveholding states. Douglass described Clay’s resolutions as “the whole seems like the handle of a jug—all on one side.”

The 1850 law was part of an amendment to the Missouri Compromise, which had admitted Maine to the U.S. as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, in 1820. The 1850 amendment rigorously compelled citizens to assist in the capture and return of runaway slaves to their owners as property. At the time, the country was deeply divided on the slavery issue. This effort was positioned as a compromise between Southern slave-holding interests and the Northern Free Soil Party, which was opposed to the extension of slavery into US territories and the admission of new slave states into the Union. While it was passed as an attempt to quiet early calls for Southern secession, it was disliked and may have hastened the approach of the Civil War. Ironically, Henry Clay died in 1852, less than two years after its passage.

There had been an earlier Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. The fugitive slave laws were laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 to provide for the seizure and return of slaves who escaped from one state into another state or territory. However, most Northern states, refusing to be complicit in the institution of slavery, passed Personal Liberty Laws that gave accused runaways the right to a jury trial and protected free blacks, who had been abducted by bounty hunger and sold into slavery.

Frederick Douglass was proven right to be outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was practically unenforceable in certain Northern States, especially New York. By 1860, only 330 slaves had been successfully returned to their Southern masters. The law, however, persisted until after the beginning of the Civil War. Both the 1793 and 1850 laws were formally repealed by an act of Congress on June 28, 1864.

Frederick Douglass

Henry Clay

The North Star printing office

The North Star historic plaque

(Click on images for a larger view.)