Fugitive Slave Law

In the movie Harriet, the people involved in the Underground Railroad started panicking immediately upon learning that the Fugitive Slave Law had been passed. Did the law go into effect immediately upon passage, as depicted in the movie, or did it, as with most laws, have a period of time between passage and going into effect?

Here’s the text of the law. I just scanned it, but didn’t see anything about an effective date, so I would assume it was immediate.

Laws may have a period of time before going into effect to give people a chance to adjust their practices. Or Congress may want to have laws take effect immediately to correct what it sees as an ongoing problem. My assumption is that the Fugitive Slave Law was one of the latter.

Federal laws are effective upon enactment unless the bill specifies otherwise (there is no delay written into the Fugitive Slave Act).

Seeing as the Act in question was fueled by anger and the perception that “the other side” was getting away with something, I would be surprised if there was any delay in its implementation.

Considering how contentious slavery was, and that the law got passed - I would assume the pro-slavery side was in the ascendency at the time and likely would not want to put off declaring the law any more than they had to.

It was part of the Compromise of 1850, which seems to have put off the Slaveholders’ Uprising by about 10 years. I’m not sure what the abolitionists got in exchange for this particular piece of legislation, but perhaps no one broke the Compromise down into that fine of detail.

The abolitionists got the end of the slave trade in Washington DC (minor) and that slavery in the new territories would be decided by the residents of the territories. Under the previous Missouri Compromise, Utah and New Mexico would be slave territories. Now it was not automatic.

California was also admitted as a free state. Southern states wanted to use the Missouri Compromise rule to split it.

So the abolitionists did get some major concessions.

That’s Arizona and New Mexico. Utah was completely north of the Compromise line.

The application of the Missouri Compromise to the Mexican cession was unclear. The compromise as written applied only to the Louisiana Purchase, since Congress in 1820 could hardly legislate for land that it didn’t govern.

Under a notional extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific–something in no way required by the law–southern California and the newly created New Mexico Territory would have been slave country; northern California and the newly created Utah Territory would have been free. The Compromise of 1850 adjusted this by admitting all of California as a free state but allowed slavery in both territories.

More important than the geography, though, was the fact that California disrupted the traditional (since the 1810’s) equality between free states and slave states in the United States Senate. California was a 16th free state as against 15 slave states. Southerners regarded this as a potential disaster and Northerners as a significant gain. It would be fair to characterize Northern assessment of the Compromise as trading the admission of California for the Fugitive Slave Act, with some other minor territorial adjustments thrown into the bargain.

As so often, reality proved different; California until the Civil War elected mostly pro-Southern, pro-slavery “doughfaces” to Congress and the Senate hardly became a bastion of abolitionism.

I’m not very familiar with American law/politics. Would that be immediate after being signed by the President?

Based on what I’ve learned from Saturday morning cartoons, I believe the answer is Yes.

Yes (though strictly speaking the White House has to send the signed bill back to Congress for publication. That could take days or even weeks back in the 1800s.