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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: December 2019

5 - Law and Degradation

from Part III - 1850–1860


Chapters 5–7 bring the story into the 1850s. Chapter 5 opens with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the distinct regional reactions to the legislation. The discussion then turns to the law’s impact on the operations of the Underground Railroad in the Borderland. Though attempts to remand fugitives from the Borderland accelerated, enslaved African Americans continued to strike out for freedom in ever greater numbers. The law empowered slave catchers to retaliate legally and violently against Underground activists, but this added pressure was at least partially offset by the completion of rail transportation networks linking the Borderland with the Upper North, which boosted activists’ capacity to help fugitives traverse the region quickly. Though the new fugitive slave law did not succeed in suppressing Underground activity, it did inhibit resistance to fugitive slave renditions: most fugitive slave rescues in the region in the 1850s employed trickery and misdirection as opposed to the large-scale riots that had characterized the region in the 1840s.