IMPACT OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW OF 1850
Americans Must Decide Between
Abiding by the Law and Civil Disobedience

BACKGROUND

The Fugitive Slave Act forced many northerners to consider for the first time the ethical implications of the slave system by forcing them to participate in it. To understand the issues raised by this law, students will simulate a town meeting held in response to a demand for aid in capturing runaway slaves. Then they will write an essay in the form of a journal entry in which they try to reconstruct what might actually have gone on at such a meeting. Students will be able to explain how the act changed northern attitudes by forcing them to take sides on an issue that had formerly been “someone else’s problem.” They will be able to relate this change to the split between the sections that developed over the next 10 years. This teaching strategy will also deepen student awareness of the debate over civil disobedience, an ongoing issue throughout American history. Students will be able to relate resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act with later episodes in which individual conscience came into conflict with adherence to the law.

MATERIALS

Several copies of the “Reward Poster” to be circulated through the class

SUGGESTED PROCEDURE

1. Post one copy of the “Reward Poster” near the entrance to the classroom so that students can see it as they enter. Circulate five or six other copies through the class. Ask students where and when Americans were likely to have seen a poster like this. (in the free states; 1850 and after) Review the major points of the Compromise of 1850, highlighting the Fugitive Slave Act. Ask for students’ emotional reactions to this poster.
2. Tell the class that they are going to participate in a town meeting to discuss the reward poster,just as citizens of northern cities and towns might really have held in 1851. Assign one student to chair the meeting. Organize the rest of the class in five groups. Try to form the groups so that each one includes students with good verbal skills. Assign each group to represent different points of view to be expressed at the meeting.
  1. One group approves of the Fugitive Slave Act and wants to help capture the runaway slaves. They agree that slaves are the property of their masters and that Mr. Rudman’s property rights must be respected.
  2. One group disapproves of slavery but thinks the two runaways should be returned to their master because “it is the law.”
  3. One group does not care one way or the other about slavery but wants to collect the reward.
  4. One group hates slavery and favors helping the two runaways to remain free even if it means breaking the law. They agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement concerning the Fugitive Slave Act: “This filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God!”
  5. One group is ready to do violence against slave catchers. They agree with Frederick Douglass that “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Act a dead letter is to make a dozen or more dead kidnappers.”
3. Tell the chairperson that his or her job is to keep order and to call upon others to speak. Remind students in each group that they should raise their hands if they want to speak but not to do so until they have been recognized by the chair.
4. Let students conduct their town meeting. Allow them to simulate the emotional climate of such a meeting as freely as seems reasonable in your classroom. The discussion could get lively as students representing the various points of view shout to be heard and refuse to wait for the chair’s recognition. The chair might tend to recognize speakers who agree with his or her personal views and fail to give other groups “equal time.”
5. Stop the discussion after about 20 minutes. As homework, assign students to write an
eyewitness account of such a meeting as it might have occurred in 1851. Have them write the accounts in the form of diary or journal entries. Their entries should:
  1. Describe what took place at the meeting
  2. Express their own point of view about the issue of compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act and their reasons for it
  3. Tell how the meeting changed their attitude toward this issue

Adapted from Creative Strategies for Teaching American History
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston 1991