Building on recent Underground Railroad scholarship that has emphasized the agency of enslaved men and women, Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018) provides the most authoritative treatment to date on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Blackett argues that fugitive slaves themselves precipitated the intense struggle over the law, through continuing to escape and defy the coterie of Federal officials and slaveholders intent on returning them to bondage. No law would have been necessary in the first place, Blackett tellingly observes, had enslaved men and women not pushed the boundaries of the slave system by taking flight. Their unflagging resistance drew considerable attention to the law, enraging its supporters while forcing previously ambivalent white Northerners to reconsider their own complicity in upholding the institution of slavery. [1]

While Stanley Campbell’s widely cited tome, The Slave Catchers (1970), claimed that resistance to the law was confined to well-known anti-slavery enclaves, Blackett’s work reveals new insights about the the pressures which freedom seekers and anti-slavery activists brought to bear upon the law’s enforcers. African American communities in particular proved a constant thorn in the sides of commissioners, Blackett demonstrates, spearheading opposition to the law on the ground in Northern cities and towns. Along with their white anti-slavery allies, free blacks made their presence felt, squeezing into packed hearing rooms, or gathering in force outside, prepared to resort to extralegal means if a commissioner handed down an unfavorable ruling. [2]

Placing fugitive slaves and free black activists squarely at the center of the struggle over the law, Blackett foregrounds the numerous rescue attempts, both successful and botched, which rocked the law’s enforcement throughout the decade. While Campbell largely dismisses the slue of attempted rescues as “occasional outbursts,” Blackett contends that these overt defiances of Federal authority–even when unsuccessful–proved crucial to the law’s ultimate undoing. [3] In April 1851, as Boston commissioner George T. Curtis heard the case of alleged runaway Thomas Sims, apprehensive Federal authorities called in a sizable contingent of soldiers to lay down the law. While the show of force snuffed out any hopes of rescuing Sims, it proved an expensive victory for the Federal government, with the total costs for remanding a single fugitive reportedly ranging between $10,000-20,000. The unceasing campaign of resistance waged by free African Americans, Blackett argues, “pushed the system to overreact and employ increasingly draconian methods.” These “draconian methods”—ranging from predawn hearings to costly armed escorts—ended up backfiring. The appearance of “heavy handedness” on the part of the Federal government to appease slaveholders, he maintains, ultimately “alienated” increasing numbers of white Northerners. [4]

Between exerting pressure on commissioners and forcible rescue attempts, Blackett argues that the spirited efforts of anti-slavery activists ultimately took a heavy toll on the law’s effectiveness. In the face of fierce anti-slavery resistance, Circuit Court judges, tasked with appointing commissioners, struggled to find willing applicants. Few cases epitomized the hazards of the post better than that of John Moore, an elderly Democrat who was goaded into accepting a commissionership in Vincennes, Indiana. Yet when Commissioner Moore remanded an alleged fugitive named George Givens in June 1854, he was promptly indicted for kidnapping by a local grand jury. While Indiana Democrats frantically sought assistance from the Pierce administration in Washington, Moore struggled to meet his legal bills. Although the case against him was eventually dropped, Moore became yet another cautionary tale of what was in store for prospective commissioners. Anti-slavery resistance intimidated many potential appointees, leaving “large swaths” of the North without any commissioner, Blackett observes, severely crippling efforts to enforce the controversial law. [5]

Blackett concludes his study with a poignant and revealing episode from the early winter months of 1861. As the secession crisis engulfed the nation, a Virginia slaveholder trudged north to Cleveland, Ohio, determined to reclaim an escaped slave, 28-year-old Sarah Lucy Bagby. The case, heard by Commissioner Bushnell C. White, took on new significance as the struggle over slavery threatened to tear the nation apart. Moderate white Northerners, desperate to demonstrate their commitment to the Union, ultimately prevailed over Cleveland’s robust contingent of anti-slavery activists. Yet while some white Northerners showcased their willingness to compromise, Blackett observes, “the enslaved cared little about saving the Union.” In their persistent defiance of the Federal statute, freedom seekers, along with free African Americans throughout the North, “managed to undermine the law and bring the country to a moment of reckoning.” [6]

In assessing the law’s effectiveness, Blackett’s work further complicates the central thesis of Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970). In his influential study, Campbell argues that the 1850 statute was faithfully enforced, grounding his claim on the statistic that 82.2% of alleged fugitives brought before commissioners were returned. While Blackett agrees with Campbell’s figures, he actually expands upon the number of cases identified by Campbell––though he only provides statistics for the first 15 months of the law’s operation, from September 1850-December 1851. During those tumultuous 15 months, Campbell pinpointed the number of cases at 110, while Blackett’s count is significantly higher, at 147. Importantly, Blackett’s count incorporates successful escapes and rescues from Federal custody, along with alleged fugitives who were remanded, but later purchased  and manumitted by anti-slavery activists, offering a more holistic picture of how the law’s enforcement proceeded in the face of anti-slavery resistance. Accordingly, Blackett breaks down this figure into 45 instances of recaption without a hearing; 53 renditions after a hearing; 16 successful escapes; 17 individuals rescued from Federal custody; seven who were remanded but purchased and restored to freedom; another seven who were released by commissioners; and finally two individuals who were purchased before they could be remanded. While he does not offer similarly detailed statistics for the entire decade, Blackett argues that the number of successful renditions pales in comparison to the many more freedom seekers who managed to elude authorities. On top of that, sensational escapes garnered more press than instances where the law was successfully enforced. As a result, Blackett writes, “it is not surprising that Southerners considered the law ineffective.” [7]

Crucially, Blackett distinguishes between the law’s operations as a whole and the actions of individual Federal officers. While he argues that anti-slavery resistance caused the Circuit Courts to fall significantly shy of their quota for commissioners, impeding the law’s operations overall, Blackett claims that most appointments after September 1850 were “based on political considerations” and the understanding that the appointee would be friendly to the law’s enforcement. Breaking from Stanley Harrold’s depiction of commissioners who were ambivalent, if not openly hostile to the law’s implementation, Blackett suggests that most commissioners who accepted appointments under the statute were willing enforcers. Yet he emphasizes that the law’s first months on the books were clouded by unanswered questions about the extent of commissioners’ powers. As a result, “many flew by the seat of their pants,” discovering ad hoc ways to “put their own stamp on the law” and “interpret its clauses in ways they thought best guaranteed its enforcement.” [8]

Although his focus remains on the agency of freedom seekers and free African American activists, Blackett describes numerous hearings under the law, and in the process identifies 21 commissioners. The most vexing part of the law for commissioners, according to Blackett, was the provision in Section 10 outlining how slaveholders should obtain an affidavit describing the alleged fugitive. In their efforts to thwart the law, anti-slavery lawyers routinely objected to claimants’ affidavits, and many fugitive cases ultimately hinged on the legitimacy of the affidavit, or the accuracy of its description. Yet pushing aside these “stumbling blocks,” Blackett stresses that commissioners possessed and frequently invoked their “untrammeled powers” to squash any resistance efforts. [9]

Yet despite the wide latitude and expansive new powers afforded them under the law, Blackett also demonstrates that commissioners were not immune from the turbulent forces swirling outside their hearing rooms. Only “constant public protests and pressure from the black community and their abolitionist allies” could give commissioners pause, and perhaps thwart renditions, he maintains. Before the ink on the bill was even dry, anti-slavery activists were vowing to do just that, threatening to ostracize anyone who accepted a commissionership. Those who took up the post often faced social and even financial consequences, which Blackett briefly explores. After remanding Anthony Burns to slavery in 1854, Boston’s Edward Loring was dropped from the faculty of Harvard Law School. Likewise, following a number of successful renditions in 1850-1852, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania commissioner Richard McAllister encountered social pressure from within his own church and was forced to step down.  [10]

While The Captive’s Quest for Freedom explores how the law worked through the lens of fugitive slaves and anti-slavery activists, this thesis project seeks to illuminate new insights about the law’s operations through a study of its enforcers. Although Blackett briefly gestures to individual commissioners imprinting “their own stamp” on the law, his focus on resistance precludes a more exhaustive examination of commissioners’ practices in the hearing rooms. Moving forward, Blackett’s landmark study will provide crucial context about the nature of anti-slavery resistance and its ramifications for the law’s enforcement.


[1] Richard J.M. Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), xi, 460.

[2] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 56-59, 459.

[3] Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 61; see post.

[4] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 67-69, 421-427, 459.

[5] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 56-64, 69-70.

[6] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 441-444, 459-460.

[7] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 69-70, 458-459.

[8] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 52-64.

[9] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 59-61.

[10] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 64, 285-291, 432-436.