For over one hundred years the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 has been considered a failure, largely because of hostile public opinion in the northern states during the decade preceding the Civil War. Many Southerners justified secession from the Union in part on their belief that the North, hostile to the institution of slavery, had failed to live up to its obligations under the Constitution and the Compromise of 1850. Historians in their treatment of the subject have generally concluded that the law was not enforced, and in fact was unenforceable.
While engaged in research on the problem of fugitive slaves in Virginia in a seminar directed by Professor Fletcher Melvin Green, I discovered that very little basic research in contemporary and official sources had been done on the Fugitive Slave Law. Further research seemed to indicate that the generally accepted interpretations about enforcement of the law were based upon unsystematic and insufficient research. With the exception of a few local studies, not a single monograph has been written on the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law since the Civil War. Most conclusions seem to have been based on the work of Henry Wilson, James Ford Rhodes, and Allan Nevins, and their research, perhaps out of necessity, was superficial.
My thesis is that while most citizens residing in the North were opposed to the institution of slavery, only a few citizens in isolated communities engaged in active opposition to enforcement of the