In June 1864, with the repeal of the controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the special powers imbued in U.S. Commissioners to handle fugitive cases were no more. Yet while the specific powers of the so-called “Fugitive Slave Commissioners” had vanished from the statute book, they remained present in popular memory. The post-Civil War period witnessed sporadic references to the bygone “Fugitive Slave Commissioners,” as well as a select number of detailed accounts written about individuals who held the controversial post.

Postwar accounts often commented on the office itself, as it existed under the 1850 law, augmented with special powers and final authority over the fate of fugitive slaves. In this vein, references to so-called “Fugitive Slave Commissioners” appeared intermittently in American serials during the decades following the war’s end. For instance, after Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, the statute’s opponents charged that the law granted U.S. Commissioners the same weighty powers over ex-Confederates and Southern whites as “the old Fugitive Slave Commissioners” had possessed over alleged fugitive slaves. While the 1866 statute replicated much of the language used in the 1850 statute, encouraging the hiring of additional commissioners “from time to time,” authorizing the appointment of deputies and outlining a $10 fee for commissioners, it shied away from vesting commissioners with such expansive powers. Rather, as one New York paper rebutted, “Commissioners under the Fugitive Slave law were judge and jury; those under the Civil Rights bill are merely committing magistrates.” [1]

References to “Fugitive Slave Commissioners” also appeared in the punch-lines of bawdy jokes. In 1867, a widely-reprinted anecdote mocking President Johnson made reference to a “fugitive slave commissioner” who arrogantly demanded a free black woman produce her husband, an alleged fugitive. “Well what do you think,” the bumbling commissioner was supposed to have said, “the next day I went down again, and couldn’t find neither of ’em. That’s it. Just like these n—s. Can’t rely on ’em.” [2] Elsewhere, allusions to the office surfaced in more serious pieces highlighting the vast changes in American society since the outbreak of the Civil War. When a delegation of African American politicians from Reconstruction Louisiana visited in New York in August 1873, a correspondent for the New Orleans Republican was unable to suppress his sense of awe at the enormous changes which had transpired since 1860. “Had these same people assembled anywhere in this city, at that time, they would have been ‘constitutionally’ hunted by fugitive slave commissioners, United States marshals, and Mr. President Buchanan’s federal troops.” [3]

Yet the most revealing postwar accounts focused on individual commissioners. Obituaries of former commissioners frequently extolled these Federal officials for their fearless commitment to law and order, while taking pains to separate commissioners’ enactment of their official duties from any personal inclinations about slavery. The obituary of George Pendleton Johnston, who as U.S. Commissioner in San Francisco heard the 1858 case of a Mississippi fugitive named Archy, heaped praise on Johnston for his “resolute” implementation of the law. Although the Kentucky-born commissioner purportedly “believed in slavery,” and his “sentiments were Southern,” the evidence prompted him to release Archy, initiating swift backlash and “some social ostracism upon the side of those who were of strong Southern sentiment.” The moral, according to this laudatory obituary, was that Johnston had performed the duties of commissioner with “manliness, courage and dignity,” emerging from this “severe and trying ordeal” with his conscience and principles intact. [4] Ten years later, a Chicago paper churned out an obituary of Commissioner Philip A. Hoyne, once again separating the commissioner’s official duties from his feelings towards slavery. While Hoyne “was not in sympathy with slavery,” he nonetheless proceeded with the duties of his post, albeit “with a feeling of repugnance.” [5]

While most obituaries sang the praises of former commissioners in generic terms, the 1897 death of former Alton, Illinois commissioner Levi Davis prompted two particularly descriptive recollections about his tenure. Within days of his passing, a group of Davis’s friends and colleagues eulogized the commissioner as a man of sterling anti-slavery credentials, despite his January 1853 decision that an alleged fugitive, Amanda Chavers, be remanded to slavery. Davis, his friends and colleagues explained, “was himself at heart an abolitionist, but he knew that when acting officially he was the mere agent of the law.” Even as “every impulse of his nature revolved,” and his “friends importuned him and a mob threatened him in behalf of the fugitive,” Davis was steadfast, refusing to deviate from the evidence clearly laid out before him by the claimant. However, when it came time to read his decision, Davis allegedly delivered a stirring anti-slavery invective to the packed hearing room, giving “indignant expression to his abhorrence of slavery, and his detestation of laws that deprived human beings of God-given rights.” Then, according to the recollection, Davis bellowed out that he could “no longer hold an office under a government which compelled men to do violence to their consciences for such base purposes as the enforcement of the fugitive slave law,” and immediately resigned. Davis, they maintained, was a man of high character whose life was guided by “honor and conscience,” setting aside his personal feelings to enforce the law when called upon in an official capacity. Moreover, they rationalized, Davis believed that “the higher law would prevail, and that submission to the law of the land until that should come to pass was even of higher importance than the extinction of slavery.” [6]

Levi Davis

Levi Davis (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

Barely two years later, a St. Louis paper published another detailed profile of Davis’s tenure as commissioner, under the provocative title, “An Illinois Martyr.” Davis, the unidentified writer asserted, was himself a “victim of the slave power,” evidence of the slave system’s corrupting ability to “make instruments of tyranny of conscientious men serving as… officers [of the law].” An aspiring politician with a bright future ahead of him, Davis was stupefied when the case of Amanda Chavers was brought before him–especially considering that her husband, Alfred Chavers, was his longtime barber. Purportedly spellbound, Davis “listened as one in a dream” as the well-prepared claimant, Malcom McCullon, presented the requisite evidence. When Chavers was brought before Davis, she reportedly broke down into tears and “admitted all,” asking “the protection of the Commissioner.” While Davis, according to the account, briefly considered citing an Illinois law declaring free any slaves brought voluntarily by their owners into the state, “his legal mind at once told him” that this statute “could not, even by the most forced interpretation, be invoked to protect” Chavers. When the claimants asserted their right to remove Chavers immediately, Davis demurred, scheduling a hearing for the next day, purportedly “hoping that some new evidence might be developed, or some legal way out of the difficulty be found.” [7]

Well past midnight on January 17, Alton’s anti-slavery activists crowded into Davis’s home, alternatively arguing, “pleading” and even “threatening” the commissioner, intimating that he would meet his “political death” should he remand Chavers. At 11 a.m. the following day, a crowd was “packed to the door” of the commissioner’s rarely-occupied “little office,” as the hearing proceeded. Davis, the account reported, delivered his ruling, “pale, but with a firm voice,” explaining his decision to remand Chavers, and then declaring: “And here and now I resign the only office I have ever held, or ever expect to hold, under such an infamous government as this.” This richly detailed account portrayed Davis as a victim and “martyr,” who suffered severe political consequences on account of his “sense of official duty” and fealty to the rule of law. Abolitionists, the author claimed, held a lasting grudge against Davis, thwarting his ambitions for public office, a coordinated ostracism that allegedly swayed Abraham Lincoln against appointing Davis to a post in his administration. [8]

While postwar accounts, when they appeared, largely extolled commissioners as fierce defenders of law and order, during this same period at least two commissioners authored their own memoirs, which will be explored in a future post.

 

[1] “Similitude by Contrast,” Brooklyn Union, March 29, 1866.

[2] New York Tribune, quoted in “Misplaced Confidence,” Raleigh, NC Weekly Progress, August 15, 1867.

[3] “Letter from New York,” New Orleans Republican, August 31, 1873.

[4] “A Noble Man Gone,” San Francisco Examiner, March 5, 1884.

[5] “Philip A. Hoyne Dead,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, November 4, 1894.

[6] “Touching Tributes,” Edwardsville, IL Intelligencer, March 16, 1897.

[7] “An Illinois Martyr,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 8, 1899; also see, Nathaniel B. Curran, “Levi Davis, Illinois’ Third Auditor,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 71:1 (February 1978): 2-12; The authorship of this 1899 account remains unclear, but the writer appears to have detailed knowledge of the case and hearing room, and even Commissioner Davis’s mindset. It is likely that the author of this piece, published two years after Davis’s death, was a close friend or associate of the commissioner.

[8] “An Illinois Martyr,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 8, 1899.