While mostly laudatory accounts of U.S. Commissioners appeared sporadically throughout the post-war period, only a select few former commissioners chose to personally recount their experiences enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Former Pittsburgh commissioner Jacob Bowman Sweitzer appears to have first broached the topic of his controversial commissionership during the 1868 presidential campaign. A Democrat and Northern veteran, Sweitzer was addressing a gathering of Union veterans in Allegheny county, Pennsylvania, urging them to support Ulysses S. Grant’s bid for the presidency.  Arguing that “those we fought in the field” had “organized under the leadership of the Democratic candidate,” Sweitzer implored his fellow Northern veterans to cross party lines and “‘fall in’ under the leadership of our old commander.” In appealing to their patriotism, Sweitzer cited his enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law as evidence of his own enduring commitment to the Union. “As an officer of the law, it became my duty to execute the Fugitive Slave Law,” Sweitzer argued to a gathering of Allegheny county voters, “and I did it, regardless of consequences to myself and of the opinions of those who opposed it.” Although the law was “repulsive… to me and my feelings as a man,” he claimed, “I considered it the duty of all good citizens to obey the law so long as it remained on the statute-book, however much it conflicted with their individual opinions.” Maintaining that he did not vote for Lincoln, and was “not even an anti-slavery man,” Sweitzer proudly touted what he billed as his consistent and unwavering Unionism. [1]

Sweitzer’s brief account of his tenure as commissioner did not delve into specific details about either of the two cases he handled, but it nonetheless mirrors many of the other laudatory postwar accounts of commissioners. The Pittsburgh lawyer took pains to portray himself as a defender of the Union, whose commitment to law and order was unshaken even in the face of anti-slavery backlash. Yet in doing so, Sweitzer appears to have deliberately misconstrued the details surrounding his appointment. Besides mistaking the post of U.S. Commissioner with that of District Attorney, Sweitzer intimated that he was already in office “when the famous compromise measures were passed.” However, he was actually appointed in November 1850 by Justice Robert Grier, who explicitly linked Sweitzer’s appointment to ongoing efforts to enforce the 1850 statute. [2]

Thirty years after Sweitzer recounted his commissionership, George Frazee, who held the post in Burlington, Iowa during the 1850s, authored the most detailed recollection from a former U.S. Commissioner. Born in New York in 1821, Frazee had studied law in Kentucky during the 1840s before relocating to Iowa, where he showcased his talents as a shorthand reporter (including taking detailed notes of an 1850 penalty case under the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, involving Missouri slaveholder Ruel Daggs). Later in life, as a distinguished member of the bar in Iowa, Frazee developed a penchant for writing historical pamphlets, including “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” written in 1898 and published in 1899, which detailed the lone fugitive case that he presided over. [3]

Frazee ad

A newspaper notice mentions the many legal services offered by George Frazee. (Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, June 2, 1855, Genealogy Bank)

According to his memoir, Frazee was appointed U.S. Commissioner “a year or two” after the passage of the controversial 1850 statute, “without special reference to it.” With a writer’s flair for descriptive detail, Frazee recalled how around 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 23, 1855, he “was idly looking out the open window” from his office–situated in the second story of Burlington’s small, wooden frame National Hotel–and noticed a farm wagon surrounded by “a crowd of street idlers.” Seated inside the wagon were Dr. Edwin James, a “venerable old gentleman,” who was known around town as a dedicated anti-slavery activist, and an African American man whom Frazee did not recognize. As Frazee would later learn, James and the African American man beside him, who was only identified as “Dick,” had been confronted by two Missouri slave catchers, William C. Young and Solomon Rose, while crossing the Iowa-Illinois border, who claimed “Dick” had escaped from Missouri slaveholder Thomas Rutherford. The two Missourians escorted James and “Dick” back to Burlington by force, where they hoped to adjudicate the claim and carry the alleged fugitive back to bondage. [4]

“About an hour” after the commotion had begun, around 10 a.m., Frazee recalled, one of the slave catchers, William Young, and the claimant’s attorney, Milton D. Browning, appeared in Frazee’s office. “They filed a complaint against Dick,” remembered the former commissioner, “containing several allegations… in due legal phrase and form, praying that a warrant might be issued for his arrest and examination.” Frazee promptly complied, delegating the task to Deputy Marshal Frederick Funk, who “proceeded to the wagon and arrested the negro as Dick, and brought him before me.” At that juncture, another local attorney, T.D. Crocker, appeared and moved that the case should be adjourned until Tuesday, June 26, “assigning some cause which I do not recollect.” (According to a contemporary report, Crocker “moved to continue the case till Tuesday in order to give time to employ counsel” for “Dick.”) Frazee apparently did not have to consider Crocker’s motion for long, as the claimant’s attorney “promptly agreed,” likely eager for more time to produce additional witnesses from Missouri. [5]

While “Dick” was placed in the county jail to await Tuesday’s hearing, Commissioner Frazee would have to grapple with one of the most vexing issues in fugitive cases–establishing the identity of the accused. According to his recollection, during the several day interlude between issuing the warrant and the hearing itself, Frazee himself grew increasingly skeptical of the claimants’ case. Acting as the agent of claimant Thomas Rutherford, it became clear that the slave catcher William Young “had not been honored with any acquaintance” of “Dick,” and “was entirely ignorant of his personal appearance, and had assumed that the negro he found with Dr. James must the the Dick he was hunting for, on the faith of the description given him by Rutherford.” When Frazee informed Young that “it would be dangerous to make oath as to the identity and status of Dick” if he himself were not certain, Young agreed to the adjournment. “But I think it was not so much his conscience that urged him to halt and constant to adjournment,” Frazee opined, “as the fear that, if he were mistaken, his own liberty would not be absolutely secure.” [6]

At the same time, Frazee recalled the myriad of external pressures bearing down upon him, as a host of prominent Iowans avowed their intentions to aid “Dick” through legal, or even extralegal means. “I was not disturbed by the knowledge of the feeling evidently prevalent,” Frazee insisted. “It was quite in accordance with my own sentiments that the alleged fugitive should be supplied with counsel who would make sure that the claimant should get nothing except upon the strictest interpretation and observance of the law.” Frazee’s eagerness to see that “Dick” had a proper defense was arguably a deviation from the fine print of the 1850 statute, which nowhere provided that alleged fugitives would have the benefit of counsel. The commissioner also took another step “in view of the evident interest and excitement,” and decided to move the hearing to the nearby District Court room, “where the probable crowd, or a greater part of it, might be accommodated.” [7]

When “Dick,” in the custody of Marshal Funk, was led into the hearing room on Tuesday, June 26, “the large court room was immediately filled to suffocation by excited people.” While Frazee never glimpsed the imposing crowd gathered outside, he was later informed that “more than a thousand” onlookers were anxiously awaiting his decision. The key witness, the son of the claimant Thomas Rutherford, was sworn, but astonished all present by his testimony. “Instead of affirming that Dick was his father’s,” Frazee remembered, “the witness promptly responded that the negro before him was not; that he did not know him and that he had never seen him before.” Frazee immediately discharged “Dick,” and “a joyous shout went up from those within the court room, responded to by the crowd without, much more vigorously.” [8]

Frazee’s recollection illustrates the workings of the law from the perspective of a commissioner, including his awareness of the external pressures swirling outside his office and hearing room. Yet ever the lawyer, Frazee concluded his memoir with a hypothetical account of how the case would have played out had the claimants managed to establish the identity of the accused, offering further insights into the mindset of a commissioner. Had the claimants appeared with “the satisfactory evidence of service due and escape therefrom, under seal from a Missouri court of record,” Frazee reasoned, “I should have been compelled to issue the required certificate.” Likewise, while a local court was purportedly ready to issue a writ of habeas corpus, Frazee believed that “no state court or judge” had power to “review or set aside the commissioner’s action or to obstruct the [Federal] officer in the execution of his orders.” It was likely inevitable, Frazee concluded, that had he remanded “Dick” to the custody of the claimants, a “violent conflict” would have played out on the streets of Burlington. [9]

In 1901, several years after Frazee’s published account, former Cincinnati, Ohio commissioner John Ludlow Pendery recorded his experiences in an autobiographical statement, which he placed in a “century chest,” or time capsule, that remained sealed until 2001. While devoting the majority of his memoir to his education and post-war activities that eventually led him to take up residence in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Pendery nonetheless offers crucial insights into his eventful stint as commissioner. He was appointed U.S. Commissioner by Justice John McClean, who had married Pendery’s cousin, Sarah Bella Ludlow. While Pendery asserts that “about that time he appointed me United States Commissioner,” the appointment likely came some time later. McClean and Ludlow exchanged their vows in 1843–when Pendery was just 20 years old, still attending Carey’s Academy near Cincinnati and studying law. One biographical sketch of Pendery claimed that he was appointed as late as 1853. [10]

Pendery does not discuss either of the two fugitive cases which came before him in 1854 (one of which involved a group of nine alleged fugitives, whom he remanded), but instead begins by detailing the 1855 Rosetta Armistead Case. A 16-year-old enslaved woman from Virginia, Armistead was brought with permission of her slaveholder, Rev. Henry Dennison, to Columbus, Ohio. There, African Americans filed a writ of habeas corpus on her behalf, and Rosetta expressed her determination to remain on free soil. Enraged, Dennison, who happened to be the son-in-law of former president John Tyler, brought the case before Commissioner Pendery in Cincinnati. Pendery offers few details about the hearing itself (except that Armistead “was arrested by Unitd States Marshal Sy Robinson, then Editor and owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer), and does not even explicitly state whether he issued the warrant for Armistead’s arrest. He does, however, reflect on his decision to release the alleged fugitive, treating her permitted journey to free soil not as “an escape under the Fugitive Slave Law” but a voluntary decision (and risk) on the slaveholder Dennison’s part. “I decided that a slave held to service and labor in a slave State [who] escaped into a free State, upon proof of the fact, should be remanded to her master,” Pendery recalled, “but in this case the master brought her voluntarily into Ohio and it did not come within the Fugitive Slave Law, as there was no law in Ohio could be invoked to return her, she was therefore free and ‘Once free forever free.'” [11]

Next, Pendery wrote of the sensational 1856 case of the Garner family, including Margaret Garner, the enslaved mother who when cornered by slave catchers, famously killed her young daughter, rather than see her returned to slavery. “The excitement was so great,” Pendery recalled, “that before the United States Marshal Mr. Robinson, could bring both parties before me I had to swear in a posse cometatus [sic] [as outlined in Section 5 of the law] of 517 men to aid the marshal in executing the law.” Noting that the “trial” lasted for 27 days, Pendery remembered with frustration how “the friends of the slaves” had attempted to use local Ohio courts to “take her [Margaret Garner] out of the jurisdiction of my Court.” A ruling from U.S. District Judge Humphrey Leavitt, Pendery wrote, confirmed that “my jurisdiction must be respected and executed first.” As a result, “I decided upon the proof that they had escaped and came within the Fugitive Slave Law and the master was entitled to a  return of them to Kentucky.” [12]

After detailing the cases of Rosetta Armistead and the Garner family, Pendery is silent about his tenure as commissioner, or what compelled him to leave Ohio for Leavenworth, Kansas in 1857. Curiously, an 1899 biographical sketch of Pendery asserts that “his main reason” in departing his native Ohio was “the condition of the country in regard to the slave question,” prompting Pendery  to throw “his influence with the free state men of Kansas” and settle in Leavenworth. [13] Likewise, Pendery’s autobiographical statement does not reveal any moral qualms about holding the position–even though he had previously revealed his conflicted personal sentiments about enforcing the law. Back in 1854, while issuing the decision to remand nine men and women in his first case, Pendery explained that he believed “conscientiously that slavery is a sin,” but insisted that “our private and conscientious opinions have nothing to do in administering the law of the land, acting officially, as I now do.” [14] Two years later, as he handed down his decision in the Garner family case, Pendery again sought to separate his personal feelings from his official duty. “The question is not one of humanity that I am called upon to decide,” Pendery had argued. “The laws of Kentucky and of the United States make it a question of property. It is not a question of feeling, to be decided by the chance current of my sympathies.” [15]

While Sweitzer proudly touted his service on behalf of the Union, both as U.S. Commissioner and later a Union officer, Frazee and Pendery offered critical details about the law’s operations from the perspective of a commissioner. Among the select few former commissioners to pen recollections, their accounts will prove crucial in better understanding the enforcement of the contentious 1850 statute.


[1] “Speech of Gen. Sweitzer,” Ebensburg, PA Alleghanian, October 1, 1868.

[2] Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 21, 1850; “Laying Down the Law,” Washington, D.C. Daily National Intelligencer, November 30, 1850.

[3] George Frazee, “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” The Annals of Iowa 4:2 (1899): 118-137, [WEB]; Edward H. Stiles, “Judge Jonathan C. Hall,” The Annals of Iowa 8:1 (1907): 30, [WEB]; See Frazee’s notes in the Daggs penalty case, Fugitive Slave Case: Ruel Daggs vs. Elihu Frazier, et. als. (Burlington, IA: Morgan & McKenny, 1850), [WEB]; also later reprinted in The Annals of Iowa 6:1 (1903): 9-45, [WEB].

[4] Frazee, “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” 125-129; An excerpt of Frazee’s “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case” was reprinted in the Des Moines Leader, July 23, 1899.

[5] Frazee, “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” 129-130; “The Slave Dick,” Burlington, IA Hawk-Eye, June 25, 1855.

[6] Frazee, “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” 130.

[7] Frazee, “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” 131-132.

[8] Frazee, “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” 132-133.

[9] Frazee, “The Iowa Fugitive Slave Case,” 133-137.

[10] John Ludlow Pendery Typed Autobiographical Statement, Century Chest, Clinton Special Collections, Tutt Library, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO, [WEB]; The United States Biographical Dictionary: Kansas Volume (Chicago: S. Lewis & Co., 1879), 214-215, [WEB]; this biographical sketch claims that Pendery was appointed the same year as the Rosetta Armistead Case (1855), even though it mistakes the year of that case as 1853. However, Pendery was certainly in office by 1854, given that he handled two cases that year.

[11] Pendery Autobiographical Statement, Colorado College.

[12] Pendery Autobiographical Statement, Colorado College.

[13] Portrait and Biographical Record of the State of Colorado: Containing Portraits and Biographies of many well known citizens of the Past and Present (Chicago: Chapman Publishing Company, 1899), 1434-1435, [WEB].

[14] “The Law Maintained,” New York Observer, July 6, 1854.

[15] “The Cincinnati Fugitive Slave Case,” Sandusky, OH Commercial Register, February 28, 1856.