Abstract

Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

– wingertc@dickinson.edu

This site chronicles the progress of my Honors thesis for the History Department at Dickinson College, 2019-2020. The controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 called for a drastic expansion of the Federal government’s enforcement apparatus, increasing the number of Circuit Court officers known as U.S. Commissioners, who would be tasked with handling fugitive slave cases. Yet of the more than 300 commissioners in office during the period of the law’s operation (1850-1864), only about 30 ever presided over a fugitive case. Although commissioners were central to the law’s enforcement, relatively little is known about these enigmatic Federal officials, or how frequently they deviated from the fine print of the contentious statute in their hearings. This research project will attempt to shed new light on how the 1850 law functioned through a study of its chief enforcers, revealing how their practices on the ground affected the national landscape of enforcement.