Of all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial. It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. It denied a fugitive’s right to a jury trial. (Cases would instead be handled by special commisioners — commisioners who would be paid $5 if an alleged fugitive were released and $10 if he or she were sent away with the claimant.) The act called for changes in filing for a claim, making the process easier for slaveowners. Also, according to the act, there would be more federal officials responsible for enforcing the law.
For slaves attempting to build lives in the North, the new law was disaster. Many left their homes and fled to Canada. During the next ten years, an estimated 20,000 blacks moved to the neighboring country. For Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive living in New York, passage of the law was “the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population.” She stayed put, even after learning that slave catchers were hired to track her down. Anthony Burns, a fugitive living in Boston, was one of many who were captured and returned to slavery. Free blacks, too, were captured and sent to the South. With no legal right to plead their cases, they were completely defenseless.