Welcome to the Research Journal for my History Honors project! Here I’ll be chronicling my research and writing progress as I work towards completing an Honors thesis on fugitive slave commissioners, the Federally-appointed officers tasked with enforcing the controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
Before I delve into the details, I’ll take a moment to explain how I arrived at this particular Honors topic. My research interest in commissioners began back during the Fall 2017 semester, in Prof. Matthew Pinsker’s American Slavery course. As one of our assignments for the course, I was working on a review essay of Richard Blackett’s volume Making Freedom (2013). Few figures stood out from the pages of Blackett’s text like Richard McAllister, the aggressive U.S. Commissioner tasked with enforcing the law in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Not only was McAllister born and raised in Harrisburg (my hometown), but he was also a Dickinson College graduate (Class of 1840). My interest piqued, I started my own research on McAllister–initially as a term paper, and subsequently as an independent study–culminating in both a web project on the notorious commissioner, as well as a forthcoming e-book.
Throughout the course of this research, I scoured countless newspaper accounts detailing McAllister’s operation, but one in particular raised additional questions. Writing in early 1853, an abolitionist editor offered a scathing denunciation of McAllister, but quickly reminded readers that “there are other worthies who should not be overlooked.” With apparent ease, he rattled off the names of four other commissioners–”Ingraham of Philadelphia, Hall of New York, Curtis of Boston, and Smith of Buffalo.”  While I was curious to learn more about these “other worthies,” I was also struck by the editor’s familiarity with the law’s controversial enforcers–names I had scarcely, if ever, encountered in my own readings of secondary source literature on the 1850 law. If commissioners were repeatedly the focal point of abolitionist attacks, why were they so often overlooked by historians? Moreover, were all commissioners as zealous to enforce the law as McAllister? In these questions (and many others) lay the genesis of my Honors project.
Although I’ve identified an intriguing historiographical gap, my task over the coming weeks and months will be to hone in on the direction I want to take the thesis. My own preliminary count has turned up some 24 commissioners involved in handling fugitive cases between 1850-1864 (the period of the law’s operation). Deciding what (and more importantly who) to focus in on, along with what methodological approach to take, will be crucial.
One approach, outlined in my prospectus submitted to the History Department, is a group biography (also known as a collective biography). Group biography, some scholars have noted, differs from prosopography, a methodology which places less emphasis on individual experiences, and instead focuses on quantifying large amounts of data to yield insights about a group as a whole. While prosopography aims to harness individual data to learn more about a particular section of society, group biography retains a primary focus on individual experiences. Historians have often used group biographies to reconstruct the experiences of marginalized or overlooked groups, enabling scholars to flesh out “some of the personal motivations which might underpin collective actions.”  Some of the best examples of group biography have been published by feminist historians. This approach could also prove useful for understanding commissioners as a group, revealing insights about how commissioners viewed the fugitive slave crisis embroiling the nation, how they approached the task of remanding fugitives and even the toll that abolitionist resistance ultimately took on the law’s chief enforcers. However, in order to make the project manageable, I’d likely have to limit the scope of the thesis to the first fifteen months of the law’s enforcement (September 1850-December 1851). This would have the benefit of allowing me to tackle in depth the law’s most effective year on the books (1851), while also being able to focus my research efforts on the approximately nine commissioners who were involved in fugitive cases during that time span.
Another option would be a data-heavy approach, gathering information on commissioners and fugitive cases that could be used to peer inside the hearing room, and demonstrate how cases were adjudicated on the ground. For example: How often did anti-slavery lawyers push their way into the hearing room, and how frequently did commissioners take testimony from accused fugitives (despite the fact such testimony was prohibited under Section 6 of the 1850 law)? Then, zooming out, I could use this data to look more broadly at enforcement patterns, showing how commissioners’ practices on the ground (and the nature of local resistance they encountered) affected the national landscape of enforcement. While this approach offers some exciting prospects, it isn’t without its drawbacks. Namely, it would require assembling and organizing a massive amount of data. Fortunately, as part of my internship this summer at the House Divided Project, I’ll be working on a first-of-its-kind database of commissioners and fugitive cases.
While I continue to strategize about this project, I’ll also keep up my research efforts on individual commissioners. At this early stage, I’m still casting a fairly wide net, running the names of commissioners through keyword searches in databases such as GoogleBooks, Internet Archive, HathiTrust and WorldCat. On top of that, I’m also taking advantage of the newspaper collections accessible through Dickinson’s Waidner Spahr library. I’ve already submitted inter-library loan requests for several relevant newspapers that have not been digitized, as well as copy and scan requests for some promising archival sources. In my next post, I’ll update you on the progress of this research.
 “Hon. Richard McAllister, of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Freeman, January 20, 1853.  Krista Cowman, “Collective Biography,” in Simon Gunn and Lucy Faire (eds.), Research Methods for History, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 83-100; Thanks to Prof. Borges for recommending this chapter.