Date of Award

Fall 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Robert E. May

Committee Chair

Robert E. May

Committee Member 1

Michael A. Morrison

Committee Member 2

John L. Larson

Committee Member 3

Yvonne M. Pitts


The most contentious portion of the Compromise of 1850 between the Northern free states and the Southern slave states was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. For decades slaveholders had complained of the difficulties encountered in reclaiming their fugitive slaves and demanded stronger legislation to deal with the problem. Northerners, however, did not believe that national legislation on the subject of fugitive slaves as embodied in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 provided adequate protection to free blacks and many states passed anti-kidnapping laws which often placed obstacles to rendition. Slaveholders discovered that the costs involved in reclaiming an absconding slave often exceeded the slave's value, and because of Northern hostility to slave hunting, could be physically dangerous. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased the weight of federal power behind the rendition process, provided additional administrative facilities to slaveholders for reclamation, and stiffened penalties for harboring, concealing, aiding and abetting fugitive slaves, or in any way obstructing the law. Instead of ameliorating sectional conflict, the new fugitive bill became a source of constant interstate conflict and was a factor in bringing about the Civil War.

Historians have written extensively about the Fugitive Slave Law - specific cases arising under the law, how rigorously the law was enforced, and Northern reaction to the law. However, little of this scholarship has focused on Indiana, by 1860 the sixth most populous state

in the nation, a border state, and a state with important cultural and commercial ties to the South. As illustrated by the fugitive slave cases discussed in this work, the Fugitive Slave Law played an important role in reshaping the political loyalties of the Indiana electorate in the politically turbulent decade of the 1850s. The kidnapping of free blacks and the often heartless enforcement of the law concretely demonstrated the evils of slavery to many Hoosiers who had previously given little thought to the issue. Abolitionists capitalized on the propagandistic value of fugitive slave cases, which became indispensible to increasing antislavery sentiment in the state.

For most of the antebellum period, Democrats had controlled Indiana politically. In the 1852 national and state elections, Hoosiers emphatically endorsed the "finality" of the 1850 Compromise package by sweeping Democrats into office. However, in 1854 the People's Party , a fusionist opposition movement opposed to the extension of slavery into the federal territories, coalesced in the aftermath of the passage of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act, and carried the state's fall elections. By 1860, the fusionists, now calling themselves Republicans, captured Indiana for Abraham Lincoln, as well as the gubernatorial race, a majority of the congressional seats, and control of the state legislature. The injustices occasioned by the heavy-handed enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law increased antislavery sentiment in the state, awakened Hoosiers to the danger of a "slave power" conspiracy that threatened the liberty of all Northerners, and significantly contributed to the political transformation of the Indiana electorate in the decade prior to the Civil War.