California and the Fugitive Slave Act

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Confederate re-enactors, standing on the ramparts of Fort Moultrie, mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War on April 12, 2011, in Charleston, S.C. The first shot that began the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, in Charleston harbor.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It’s also been 161 years since California became a state. The two are separated by time, but linked by slavery politics.

The United States grew by leaps and bounds in the first half of the 19th century. US Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the war with Mexico 43 years later added a vast amount of territory to the young United States.

"You know, if you look at the map of the United States," he says, "California is the bookend. And it sort of defined that we had all this territory in the middle, we were going to fill this nation in. And this was the era of manifest destiny and California was the jewel in the crown."

But it was a jewel that came with a terrible price.

By the 1820s, Northern states had given up slavery, but the farm economies of Southern states were using more slaves than ever. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 set a precedent: Ritchie says Missouri would be admitted to the US as a slave state; Maine would come in as a free state.

"And every time a new territory applied for statehood, the question was, 'Was this going to be a state that prohibits slavery or permits slavery?'”

Mexico surrendered California to the US in 1848. The population in the new US territory exploded a year later with the Gold Rush.

In 1850, California applied for statehood but no other territory had grown enough to become a state. If California joined the US, it would join alone and it would prohibit slavery. Two Senators, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, came up with a compromise to appease the slave-holding Southern states: admit California as a free state, but pass the Fugitive Slave Act at the same time.

Ritchie says the Fugitive Slave Act, "allowed authorities in cities like Boston to arrest people who were accused of being fugitive slaves and forcibly returning them to their owners."

Blacks suspected of being runaway slaves were denied jury trials. Special commissioners heard those cases instead. They got $5 if a fugitive was released, but $10 if the suspected slave was sent back South with a bounty hunter.

An estimated 20,000 African-Americans living in the north moved to Canada so they wouldn’t get swept up. Ritchie says Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act to quiet the slave debate but it didn’t work.

"People were already in 1850 talking about the possibility of a Civil War. So the one thing that it did was delay the Civil War essentially for a decade," he says.

When war did come, fierce and bloody battles scarred Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and many other states. California was untouched, but the Golden State was still tarnished by the role its admission to the Union played in preserving slavery.

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