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Chicago and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

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Chicagoans, Mayor James Curtiss and the Common Council defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 twice. They passed a resolution on October 21, 1850, condemning it and directing the Chicago Police Department ‘not to render assistance for the arrest of fugitive slaves.’

Chicago, the largest transportation center on the western frontier, became a center of antislavery efforts and was a terminal for the Underground Railroad. Its location provided access to Canada. Its waterway systems connected it to the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Fugitive slaves from Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi worked and opened businesses in Chicago. Most Chicagoans hated slavery so the fugitives were protected.

The resolution, written by George Manierre, stated that the Congressional Act was ‘revolting to our moral sense, and an outrage upon our feelings of justice and humanity, because it desregards all the securities which the Constitution and Laws have thrown around personal liberties, and its direct tendency is to alienate the people from their love and reverence for the Government and Institutions of our Country.’

Two days later, Senator Stephen A. Douglas condemned this resolution in a 3½-hour speech before the Common Council, but his efforts failed. On November 29, 1850, Mayor Curtiss and the City Council upheld their resolution (Document 19) and refused to allow enforcement of the Congressional Act. They believed they had the support of the Supreme Court. The dire consequences predicted by Douglas didn’t intimidate them.

In 1850, Chicagoans supported what they believed was right, even if it meant defying the U.S. Congress. The courage of Chicagoans of all races, economic ranks, religions and their city government reassured Chicago’s African Americans. Responsible government, open communication, and respect for democratic institutions motivated Chicagoans to act ethically. Demonstrations, violence and intimidation were unnecessary because Chicagoans trusted themselves and their political representatives.

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