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Slave Driver, Catch a Fire!


A simple piece of paper that could strike fear in your heart
A simple piece of paper that could strike fear in your heart

Imagine seeing a sign that said you could be kidnapped and it would be legal. If you were an escaped slave living in the North, it could have happened to you.

The time was 1850 and America was trying to decide what to do about letting Texas in as a new state. California had become a free state. This means that it did not allow slavery. New Mexico and Utah wanted to allow people to vote on whether they would allow slavery or not. When it came time to decide what to do with Texas, many people argued over slavery, because the Southern states wanted to have more states that allowed slavery and the North wanted to have more states that were free.


Politicians in Congress came up with a set of laws legal agreements that made everyone a little happy. Because nobody got everything they wanted, but everybody got something, they called it the Compromise of 1850. One important part of this compromise was a terrible law called the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It meant trouble for all of the slaves who had escaped from their owners and found freedom in the North. It also meant trouble for some blacks who had never been slaves.

The golden words of this plaque don't begin to say how important this house is
The golden words of this plaque don't begin to say how important this house is

The Fugitive Slave Act said that slaves were property. Can you imagine if someone said you were the same as a car or a toy? That means they could do whatever they wanted with you, if you liked it or not. Well, slaves were not property, they were people. But The Fugitive Slave Act did not agree. It said that because slaves were property, if they escaped they were the same as stolen. If they were stolen, they had to be returned. The escaped slaves were worth reward money.


Now I love the rain! I love it, I love it, I love it, but...

Some white people in the North took the opportunity to make some money by kidnapping people they thought were escaped slaves. Sometimes they kidnapped people who had never been slaves in their entire lives! It was a good thing the abolitionists were around to help. These brave people helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. They also helped them stay hidden from kidnappers and police. One abolitionist, a black man named Lewis Hayden, would hold a stick of dynamite in his hand when he answered the door, in order to scare away police, so that people would be safe hiding in his house.

Thanks to people like Hayden, many black people were able to remain free in the North, despite the terrible outcome of the Compromise of 1850.


Please email me at: kevin1@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - A brilliant former slave speaks out against slavery
Daphne - All aboard the Underground Railroad
Kevin - A newspaper editor fights slavery with words