A noted legal historian, Paul Finkelman has authored numerous works examining slavery and the U.S. legal system, from the Constitutional Convention through the Civil War Era. While his bibliography is extensive and varied, several of Finkelman’s publications, explored here, yield important insights in terms of this project. Although not directly addressing the 1850 law or fugitive slave cases, Finkelman’s tome An Imperfect Union (1981) details the breakdown of comity between free and slaveholding states that materialized throughout the early to mid-19th century, amounting to what he terms a “judicial and legislative war” that fueled the growing sectional animus. [1] Finkelman is also the editor of the 16-volume series Slavery, Race and the American Legal System, 1780-1872 (1988), reproducing texts of pivotal slavery-related legal cases. The four volumes of Series II, “Fugitive Slaves and American Courts,” will undoubtedly prove useful when examining fugitive cases under the 1850 law. [2]

Throughout his scholarship, Finkelman has repeatedly scrutinized the central thesis of Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970). While Campbell famously claimed that the 1850 law was faithfully enforced, and the vast majority of the Northern public proved acquiescent to the controversial statute, Finkelman concludes that Campbell has “overstated” the extent of Northern support for the law. [3] In a similar vein, Finkelman suggests that scholars have largely exaggerated the extent of Northern racism and its impact on the enforcement of both the 1793 and 1850 Federal fugitive slave laws. Anticipating the subsequent work of Stanley Harrold and Robert Churchill, who both emphasize the anti-slavery convictions of border state residents, Finkelman’s article, “Fugitive Slaves, Midwestern Racial Tolerance, and the Value of ‘Justice Delayed'” (1992) argues that although many Northerners were far from embracing notions of racial equality, “even mildly antislavery attitudes led to new protections and rights for free blacks.” Detailing one fugitive case which unfolded in September 1849, Finkelman observes that a family of four alleged fugitives––Lucy Powell and her three sons––were abruptly seized from their home in Cassopolis, Michigan, by Kentucky slaveholder John Norris and nine fellow Kentuckians. Yet as legal proceedings played out in South Bend, Indiana (still under the 1793 law), a biracial group of 200 armed Michiganders descended upon South Bend, and with support from the city’s white community, intimidated Norris into relinquishing his claim. Although Norris would later file suits against Indiana residents who interfered with his property rights as a slaveholder, Finkelman notes that the community’s aggressive stances against the slave catching posse “were hardly the actions of racists.” [4]

The case of the Powell family bore a striking resemblance to the June 1848 escape of nine enslaved men and women from the Missouri farm of Ruel Daggs, where residents of Salem, Iowa presented a unified front against a group of Missourians tasked with recapturing the fugitives, enabling the successful escape of five individuals. Like Norris, Daggs also brought a suit against Salem residents accused of aiding the fugitives under the 1793 law. These cases demonstrate, Finkelman argues, that residents of both midwestern communities “believed that even black strangers were entitled to a due process hearing, and that they had the right to be free unless those claiming them as slaves could produce evidence of their servitude.” [5] Although Finkelman’s focus in this article remains on cases adjudicated under the 1793 statute, his assertion that violent recaption efforts by slaveholders were anathema to white Northerners’ views of justice complements Robert Churchill’s concept of a deep-rooted “collision of cultures” that extended into the 1850s and beyond.

Yet Finkelman’s most direct contribution to the historiography of the 1850 law comes in his pointedly titled essay, “The Appeasement of 1850,” which appeared in a volume he co-edited, Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s (2012). Contesting earlier “heroic” portrayals of the much-vaunted Compromise of 1850, Finkelman refers to the package of five bills ushered through Congress as an “appeasement,” that was “overwhelmingly favorable to the South, while giving the North almost nothing of value.” The most blatantly pro-Southern element of this “appeasement,” Finkelman writes, was the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which was “so unfair, so one-sided, so outrageous, that it could not possibly work.” Drawing on his earlier arguments about white Northerners’ sense of justice, Finkelman notes that the law’s “absurdly unfair provisions and its failure to protect free blacks from kidnapping” alienated a substantial number of white Northerners. Moreover, he writes, the law’s propensity to ensnare alleged fugitives who had lived for years as respected members of Northern communities deeply perturbed many Northerners. [6]

Finkelman discusses the Federal government’s efforts to enforce the contentious statute, but primarily through the lens of high-ranking officials, such as President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Fillmore, he argues, was not troubled by any scruples of conscience, but rather a vehement supporter of the law, whose fixation with its successful enforcement bordered on “obsession.” Fillmore’s aggressive approach stemmed in part from his need to court Southern support for the 1852 Whig nomination, a motive shared by his elderly, though intensely ambitious secretary of state. Even as both men angled for the presidential nod,  the two “teamed up to aggressively enforce” the law, with Fillmore most notably urging the prosecution of 40-plus citizens for treason in the aftermath of the Christian Riot. While Finkelman notes that both Fillmore and Webster “personally intervened with local U.S. attorneys to help secure convictions of opponents of the law,” he does not discuss what role, if any, the two men played in arranging the appointment of commissioners. Yet Finkelman shows how Northern resistance to the law was sufficient “to embarrass every administration for the rest of the decade,” while confirming Southerners’ worst suspicions that “nowhere in the North could they expect to vindicate their claims to fugitive slaves.” [7]


[1] Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 8-11.

[2] Paul Finkelman (ed.), Slavery, Race and the American Legal System, 1700-1872 (New York: Garland, 1988), 16 vols.

[3] Paul Finkelman, “The Kidnapping of John Davis and the Adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793,” The Journal of Southern History 56:3 (August 1990): 410.

[4] Paul Finkelman, “Fugitive Slaves, Midwestern Racial Tolerance, and the Value of ‘Justice Delayed,'” Iowa Law Review 78:1 (October 1992): 89-142; also see Paul Finkelman, “John Bingham and the Background to the Fourteenth Amendment,” Akron Law Review 36:4 (2003): 671-692.

[5] Finkelman, “Fugitive Slaves, Midwestern Racial Tolerance, and the Value of ‘Justice Delayed,'” 92-95.

[6] Paul Finkelman, “The Appeasement of 1850,” in Paul Finkelman (ed.), Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012), 50, 73-79.

[7] Finkelman, “The Appeasement of 1850,” 73-79.