American History Stories—Volume III. - Mara L. Pratt

The Fugitive Slave Law

Sometimes these slaves used to run away. If they could get into the Northern States, that is, into the free states, they themselves were free. Of course this did not please the slave owners; and so Henry Clay, who as we have heard before, was always presenting some sort of a bill in Congress that served to keep the North and South from an actual quarrel, brought before the Senate a law which was called "The Fugitive Slave Law." Fugitive means runaway—and by means of this new law, a slave holder was given the right to pursue a runaway slave into any State, and bring him back. This law seemed all right at first, and no doubt Henry Clay meant that it should be all right. At any rate, he brought it before the Senate at a time when the South would, but for this law, have broken out in open rebellion.

This proved to be a very cruel law, however, for some of the slave holders would pursue their runaway slaves just as they would have pursued runaway cattle, and would drive them home with the lash. Of course, some of the slaves had very kind masters, but many slaves so dreaded to go back, that when they found their masters were coming for them, they would kill themselves rather than be taken. Sometimes mothers would kill their little children rather than they should grow up slaves.