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Fugitive Slave Act 1850 Essay Format

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Activity

Suggested Time 

Two class periods 



In this activity, your students will learn about and analyze the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, its effect on enslaved people, and how its passing into law impacted fugitive slave resettlement and the abolitionist movement in the United States.

On the first day, students will watch a series of videos from the PBS series Mercy Street that examine the impact this law had on everyday people. While this series is a drama, it features historically accurate representations of events that really happened to people during the Civil War period. Then, students will read an essay about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and answer a series of text-dependent discussion questions.

On the second day, students will examine two primary source documents. First, students will do a close read of the Fugitive Slave Act text itself and describe a selected passage in their own words. Then, students will read about how the Fugitive Slave Act impacted a fugitive slave named Harriet Jacobs who lived in New York in 1861.


Instruct your students to watch the three videos in this media gallery and answer the discussion questions. Remind students that while the videos are excerpted from a fictional drama, the storylines are based on the experiences of real people during the Civil War period. The videos and the associated discussion questions are listed below. Encourage students to watch the videos multiple times as they answer the discussion questions.

Fugitive Slaves in Free States: Still not Free

  • Who is Ben Cooper and what can you piece together about his story?
  • Using evidence from the video, what do we learn about James Green, Sr. and his views on slavery in the South?

“This is not our battle”—but it should be

  • What does James Green, Sr. mean when he says “It’s sad when conscience becomes a luxury we can no longer afford”?
  • What happens next? What do the Green men witness? What do they do? Notice their body language. What does it reveal about how the characters feel about their actions?

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850: Nothing Could Be Done

  • What do the Union soldiers tell James Green, Sr. about the Ben Cooper’s (called “contraband” in this video) capture?
  • James Green, Sr. mentions an article of war recently passed by President Lincoln--but he’s cutoff by one of the soldiers. This scene takes place early in the war. What article of war might he be addressing?
  • The Union solders threaten Green to do something. What is the threat and why do they make it? Do you think this would have happened if he wasn’t somehow involved with Ben Cooper?

Then, ask your students to respond to the writing prompt below. Ask a section of students share their responses.

James Green, Sr. put himself at risk by hiring "contraband" to work in his furniture factory. According to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, men and women like Ben Cooper were legally fugitives and viewed as criminals by the federal government (even if they were residing in a free state during the Civil War). If Ben Cooper was exposed, James Green, Sr. knew he could face severe consequences. If you were a free person in the 1860s, would you allow an escaped person, who was once enslaved, to work for you or stay in your home? Why or why not? If a friend or family member of yours today broke the law, would you assist in hiding them? Why or why not? How might the circumstances change your decision?

Note: Encourage your students to think of other historical periods when regular citizens had to make a decision whether or not to assist those in danger due to their ethnicity and/or status with the state (e.g., Jews in German occupied Europe, undocumented people living in the United States today, etc.).


Part One

Ask students to read the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Essay and then hold a classroom discussion about the concepts presented. Make sure students address the following in their discussion:

  • Describe the main principles of the Fugitive Slave Act and how it impacted enslaved people who escaped to free states or territories.
  • Who are the fugitives mentioned in this essay? Using evidence from the text, what was life like in the North after the passing of this law?
  • How did the passing of this law embolden abolitionists?

Part Two

Students have read and discussed the Fugitive Slave Act, but what was this law exactly? What did it actually look like and what language was used to describe its principles?

Distribute the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Primary Source document and tell your students to read through the document. Then, handout the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Worksheet. Divide students into groups of two, three or four (depending on the size of your class). Assign each group two sections from the act (the hand is divided by page). Tell students to read through their assigned section and describe, in their own words, what each section means. This will be difficult for students. Encourage them to struggle through the text as a team.

Once students have described the passages in their own words, ask them to share their versions with the class. Provide feedback, as needed.

Then, tell students to record all their peers descriptions for the other sections of the document. Read through again with you students. Answer any questions that arise.

Culminating Activity

Distribute the Harriet Jacobs on the Fugitive Slave Law primary source document to you students. Read this document as a class. Then ask your students to read it again on their own and respond to the following questions:

  • Who was Harriet Jacobs? What specific facts about her life are present in the text? What can you infer about her character from reading this passage? Use examples from the text to support your answer.
  • Describe a few of the stories she mentions about the ways this law impacted people of color in New York City.
  • How does Jacobs describe her own experience living in New York City after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed?
  • According to Jacobs, how did the African American community in New York City respond to this law?

The Compromise of 1850

  • Length: 385 words (1.1 double-spaced pages)
  • Rating: Excellent
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The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska Acts were very advantageous to the South. In both pieces of legislation the south gained things that would aid them in their campaign to expand slavery. The advantages the south included a stronger fugitive slave law, the possibility for slavery to exist in the remaining part of the Mexican Cession, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the eventual plan to build the Southern Pacific Railroad.
One item in the Compromise of 1850 was the provision for a stronger Fugitive Slave Law. This new law made it a federal crime to not return a runaway slave to the south. The law also established that any suspected runaway slave was to be tried by a single judge, not by a jury. Also, these judges were compensated by a system that provided them with more money for deciding that the slave was guilty than innocent. This law obviously encouraged people not to harbor runaway slaves, and when they were caught, it provided the judge an incentive to have them returned to the south.
Another advantage of the Compromise of 1850 to the south was that the rest of the Mexican Cession territory was to be divided into the two territories of Utah, and New Mexico. It was also said that when these territories eventually applied for statehood, the people of the new states would decide for themselves if they were to be free states or slave states. This was good for the south because it made it possible for the new territory to eventually become slave states, and that would not be possible if the 36-30 line was extended westward. The compromise also said nothing prohibiting people from bringing their slaves to the territory in the meantime.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a great victory for the south. The greatest benefit to the south was the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which established the sacred 36-30 line. If the Missouri Compromise had stayed in place, there would have been no more possibility for the expansion of slavery, since there was no land left south of the 36-30 line; under the Missouri Compromise southern expansion was hampered by the existence of the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the line being repealed, it was possible for slavery to exist in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska because of popular sovereignty.

How to Cite this Page

MLA Citation:
"The Compromise of 1850." 13 Mar 2018

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It was also thought that since Kansas was directly west of Missouri, a slave state, Kansas would also choose to become a slave state. The south also tricked the north into thinking they had gotten the better part of the deal because they were going to get the Union Pacific Railroad, but the north was unaware of the plan to build the Southern Pacific Railroad, which would benefit the south.
There are very strong facts to show that the south was the greater benefactor in the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The benefits that the south reaped far outweigh those of the north. The possibility of the expansion now seemed like a much greater possibility than it had been before the Compromise of 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska Act.