A law had long been in existence which, in accordance with the Constitution, allowed slaveholders to go into free states to claim their runaway slaves. But instead of helping the owners, the Northern people often hid the Negroes who besought their aid, and helped them to escape. They did this because they believed that slavery was wrong and that it was better to break such a law than to keep it.
To stop this practice, a new fugitive–slave act was included in the Compromise of 1850; but before long it made a great deal of trouble. Slaves who had run away many years before were now seized in the North and brought back by force to their masters. The poor Negroes, who had thought themselves safe, naturally made a loud outcry when caught, and so roused the pity of people in the North that they several times rescued them from their captors.
As slaves were no longer safe in any part of our country, kind–hearted people who thought more of their suffering than of obeying the law, now sent them into Canada. But, not daring to oppose the law openly, they forwarded them secretly from place to place, hidden under loads of hay, packed in barrels, or done up in queer–shaped parcels. These were passed on from one person to another, who thus formed what was known as the “underground railroad.”
Of course, the sight of slave catchers in the Northern towns made people talk and write more than ever against slavery. All agreed that the trouble had begun in 1619, when the first Negroes were sold in Virginia, and that it had steadily grown worse. Many people in the South also thought slavery an evil, but they added that their Negroes were so ignorant and helpless that they had to be treated like children, for they would starve if left to themselves.
Still, there were also many others who insisted that it was only right that Negroes should serve white men. These people were very angry when Northern papers were sent south, or when their slaves were taught to read, for they said any knowledge the colored people gained would only make them discontented with their lot.