Although many contemporary newspapers and postwar accounts referred to the office of “Fugitive Slave Commissioner,” the post of U.S. Commissioner not only predated the controversial 1850 law, but comprised a myriad of other duties and powers. The origins of the office date back to 1793, when Congress first empowered U.S. Circuit Courts to appoint “discreet persons learned in the law” to take bail. In 1812, Congress expanded commissioners’ remit to include the taking of affidavits, and five years later, in March 1817, shuffled through legislation empowering commissioners to handle certain maritime cases (and officially designating these Circuit Court officers as “commissioners”). Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, U.S. Commissioners––especially those operating out of port cities––would still be exercising their jurisdiction over maritime matters that involved deserters, crimes committed at sea and slave trading. Yet in 1842, Congress expanded commissioners’ authority once again–allowing them “all powers that any justice of the peace, or other magistrate, of any of the United States may now exercise in respect to offenders for any crime or offense against the United States.” Effectively forming what scholar Charles Lindquist has termed a “minor federal judiciary,” U.S. Commissioners could now arrest, imprison and set the bail for those who had committed Federal crimes. Eight years later, in 1850, Congress would again imbue U.S. Commissioners with lofty new powers, this time to hear and determine fugitive cases. [1]

From the mid-1840s onward, U.S. Commissioners found themselves adjudicating cases involving an array of Federal crimes with the powers afforded them under the 1842 statute. In particular, commissioners were inundated with a litany of counterfeiting and mail robbery cases. In January 1858, Hartford, Connecticut commissioner J.C. Comstock heard the case of the “three cent counterfeiters,” while Galesburg, Illinois commissioner George C. Lamphere examined five Illinois men “charged with counterfeiting gold coin” in February 1859. [2] Reports of mail fraud also abounded. In 1848, a woman was brought before New Orleans commissioner M.M. Cohen accused of opening a posted letter and “having abstracted the contents therefrom.” [3] Other cases were markedly more severe, such as in early 1858, when New Haven, Connecticut commissioner Charles R. Ingersoll heard the case of a man charged with “robbing the mails at various times,” and used his power under the 1842 law to set the bail at a steep $20,000. [4] Months later, in October 1858, Commissioner J.A. Settle of San Antonio, Texas presided over a case in which a man was accused of “robbing our Post Office.” The hearing included at least six witnesses, and “will probably occupy the Court all day to-day,” predicted a local paper. [5]

In coastal cities, U.S. Commissioners routinely exercised their jurisdiction over maritime cases, adjudicating a range of crimes committed at sea, including desertion, murder and even slave trading. Cases involving deserters were more common, such as in 1845, when Commissioner Cohen in New Orleans heard the case of three sailors charged with desertion by their captain. Likewise, in 1852, Commissioner George W. Morton of New York City presided over the case of four Prussian sailors, who had deserted their ship when it docked at New York. Morton, who just months earlier had decided a fugitive case, ordered the four men to be returned to their ship. Even Chicago commissioner Phillip A. Hoyne encountered deserters from one of the many “lake craft” traversing the Great Lakes–in one case, Hoyne gave a group of four deserters, unhappy with their contracts, the ultimatum to “either peaceably go back to the vessel, or be committed to jail.” The foursome chose to return to their ship. [6]

Other maritime cases garnered more fanfare and attention. A sensational “murder on the high seas” was on the docket of Hartford, Connecticut commissioner Erastus Smith in July 1853, while Jersey City, New Jersey commissioner J.P. Vroom heard the case of a Chinese man accused of killing a captain and his brother during the spring of 1860. [7] U.S. Commissioners in coastal communities also frequently conducted examinations of those caught captaining “slavers” or slave ships, in defiance of the United States’ ban on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In early May 1854, only weeks before the highly publicized rendition of Anthony Burns from Boston, U.S. Commissioner C.L. Woodbury examined a captured slave trader in the city. Later, on the eve of the 1860 presidential election, Portsmouth, New Hampshire commissioner Horace Webster held a hearing for four sailors seized on the west African coast and “charged with voluntarily serving on board the slaver Erie,” setting their trial date for later that month. [8]

While U.S. Commissioners appointed after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law still possessed the power to hear any of these cases, many of the new appointments were made with special reference to the controversial statute. When Justice Robert Grier issued a spate of three new appointments in November 1850, he explicitly cited the “late act of Congress concerning fugitives from labor” which required the Circuit Courts to “make such appointments in places where their services were likely to be needed.” [9] As New Yorker Samuel Johnson noted while declining an appointment in October 1850, U.S. Commissioners named in the law’s wake were understood to be “especially charged” with its execution. [10]

Moreover, following the passage of the 1850 law, rumors swirled about new appointees, and rampant speculation ensued about who had actually been offered (and had accepted) commissionerships. These numerous reports illuminate the considerable degree of ambiguity and uncertainty that clouded the post of U.S. Commissioner at the ground level. In December 1850, during the hearing of alleged fugitive Henry Long in New York, anti-slavery lawyers called into question Commissioner Charles M. Hall’s credentials. Hall, they argued, had only recently relocated to the city, and “derived his pretended authority from his employer, Commissioner [Alexander] Gardiner, and not from the Circuit Court,” as stipulated in Section 1 of the 1850 law. They pronounced Hall a “sham Commissioner,” though their protests went unheeded. [11] Slave catchers in search of an alleged fugitive near Trenton, New Jersey experienced similar confusion in 1853, when they “called upon” James Ewing, who they had learned was recently appointed U.S. Commissioner. Yet much to their dismay, Ewing informed the pair of Virginians that he “had no authority, never having accepted the appointment.” [12] Three years later, a Perry County, Pennsylvania newspaper wondered aloud if that county’s U.S. Commissioner, Alexander B. Anderson, was “still an officeholder under the present National Administration.” [13] Elsewhere, a correspondent in Salem, Illinois reported that a “disreputable fellow” named Merritt “says he is a Commissioner under the Fugitive Slave Law,” but that his claim “is doubted here.” [14]

Other reports reveal surprising ways in which the 1850 law was interpreted by commissioners. In late 1851, when three white indentured apprentices of New Yorker John Russell fled the city and made their way to Connecticut, Russell had the three “runaway apprentices” brought before U.S. Commissioner Charles Ingersoll in New Haven. Drawing on the very verbiage of the 1850 statute, Russell maintained that “under the laws of the State of New York,” the three apprentices owed him “service or labor.” As Russell well knew, the 1850 statute, as well as the original 1793 Fugitive Slave Law and the so-called Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution, shied away from using the words “slave” or “slaves.” Exploiting that ambiguity, Russell argued that the phrase employed in the law––”fugitives from service or labor”––included “fugitive apprentices,” even if they were white and only indentured for a term of several years. For his part, Commissioner Ingersoll ruled that Russell’s claim was “within the purview of the constitutional provision requiring the surrender of ‘persons held in service,'” and accordingly issued a certificate of removal to Russell, the same certificate a slaveholder would have received under the 1850 law. While a New Haven paper styled the affair a “novel case,” anti-slavery editorialists seized upon Ingersoll’s decision to rail against the controversial law. “The provisions for summary process… with the $5 premium to the Commissioner for decreeing the surrender, are as applicable to our own sons,–aye, and our daughters, too,” fumed Jane Grey Swisshelm in Pittsburgh. [15]

Similar cases appeared before Boston commissioner Edward Loring, Pennsylvania commissioner Charles F. Heazlitt and another New York commissioner, all of whom ruled that apprentices or indentured servants fell under the ambiguous wording of the 1850 law. However, Commissioner George W. Morton in New York City broke with his colleagues, ruling in a July 1853 case that the word “person” as used in the Constitution’s so-called Fugitive Slave Clause, “is synonymous with slave,” and “the whole scope and object of that clause… is exhausted and answered, in its application to Fugitive Slaves, exclusive of any and all other description of runaway servants.” [16]

While U.S. Commissioners attracted the most public attention––and outrage––for the powers they wielded over alleged fugitive slaves under the 1850 law, understanding the myriad of other duties and powers they held helps contextualize the office and its place in the Federal judiciary of the antebellum United States.


[1] U.S. Statutes at Large 1 (1793): 333-335; U.S. Statutes at Large 2 (1812): 679-682; U.S. Statutes at Large 2 (1817): 350; U.S. Statutes at Large 5 (1842): 517; Charles A. Lindquist, “The Origin and Development of the United States Commissioner System,” The American Journal of Legal History 14:1 (January 1970): 6-8.

[2] “Counterfeiters,” Hartford, CT Courant, January 26, 1858; “More Arrests of Counterfeiters in Knox County,” Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1859.

[3] “Opening a Letter,” New Orleans Crescent, April 5, 1848.

[4] Hatford, CT Courant, January 22, 1858.

[5] San Antonio, TX Ledger and Texan, October 16, 1858.

[6] “Before U.S. Commissioner Cohen,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 30, 1845; “U.S. Commissioner’s Office,” New York Times, October 14, 1852; “Deserting Seamen,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1862.

[7] “Murder on the High Seas,” Hartford, CT Courant, July 11, 1853; “The Sloop Spray Mystery,” New York Herald, April 4, 1860.

[8] “Seizure of a Slaver,” Boston Courier, May 1, 1854; “U.S. Commissioner’s Court,” Savannah Republican, quoted in Charleston, SC Courier, December 22, 1858; “U.S. Commissioner’s Court,” Portsmouth, NH Journal of Literature and Politics, November 3, 1860; also see “The Slave Trade–Mysterious Arrest of a Colored Boy,” Boston Liberator, July 6, 1855.

[9] “Laying Down the Law,” Washington, D.C. National Intelligencer, November 30, 1850.

[10] Samuel E. Johnson to Alexander Gardiner, October 26, 1850, Series 4, Box 14, Folder 363, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Family Papers, Archives, Yale University.

[11] Annual Report of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Presented at New-York, May 6, 1851 (New York: William Harned, 1851), 26, [WEB].

[12] “Slave Catching in Trenton,” Pittsburgh Saturday Morning Visiter, April 16, 1853.

[13] Bloomfield, PA Perry County Democrat, August 14, 1856.

[14] “Another Negro Catching Speculation––Profits Small,” Chicago Tribune, January 23, 1860; Merritt, according to the Chicago Tribune, was the editor of the Salem Advocate. The paper had two editors at the time, J.D. and E.L. Merritt. See “Brown’s Brother,” Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1859.

[15] “The First Fugitive Case in Connecticut,” New Haven, CT Register, December 19, 1851, quoted in Hartford, CT Courant, December 22, 1851; “Fugitive Apprentices,” Pittsburgh Saturday Morning Visiter, January 3, 1852.

[16] “U.S. Commissioner’s Court,” Pennsylvania Freeman, July 14, 1853; “Arrest of a White Boy Under the Fugitive Slave Law,” Natchez, MS Mississippi Free Trader, March 30, 1853; “Recent American Decisions, in the District Court of the United States, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, July 1853,” in Asa I. Fish and Henry Wharton (eds.), The University of Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register (Philadelphia: D.B. Canfield, 1853), 1:654-656, [WEB]; also see John Van Orden Case files.