As I begin drafting my historiography chapter, it is important that I demonstrate how prominent––and infamous––the U.S. Commissioners handling fugitive cases were during the 1850s, before segueing to their evolving legacy during the postwar period. While my previous post explored how the contemporary cartoon literature harnessed the tropes of tyrannical authority and unchecked power when depicting commissioners and hearings under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, this post unpacks how one anti-slavery journalist, attorney and novelist applied those themes in his contemporary writings.

Helping to crystalize the image of the tyrannical commissioner was Richard Hildreth’s provocative tome Atrocious Judges (1856). A Bostonian and anti-slavery attorney, Hildreth was no stranger to the law’s practical operations, having squared off in the hearing room against Commissioner George T. Curtis, as well as helping to spearhead the campaign to remove one of the city’s other commissioners, Edward Loring. Compiling a series of biographical sketches of English judges authored by the British politician Lord John Campbell, Hildreth explicitly linked the abusive judges of 16th and 17th century England’s notorious Star Chamber to what he asserted was their “only American parallel”––U.S. Commissioners operating under the mandate of the 1850 law. [1]

Hildreth’s edited volume only heightened the apprehensions about commissioners’ powers that had been festering among many Northerners for more than five years. An advertisement for Hildreth’s book pointedly likened rendition hearings under the 1850 statute to “an American Star Chamber,” while another notice applauded the author’s timely warning about the perils of “judicial tyranny.” Joining the fray, the New York Tribune lent its support to Hildreth, drawing on longstanding Jeffersonian concerns about the dangers of an unchecked judiciary. The 1850 law, the Tribune warned, “has studded the country all over with a host… of judicial mercenaries,” who were empowered to “set at defiance the State Courts and the State authorities” and “spend any amount of the public money in hiring blackguard cutthroats to assist them and the Marshal in doing it.” There was no tangible difference, the paper concluded, between “the atrocious Judges of Charles II and his brother and the atrocious Judges of the times of Fillmore and Pierce,” except that Northerners were not fighting a monarch, but rather attempting to “shake off” the tyranny of “slaveholding domination.” [2]

Several years earlier, Hildreth had also brought his scorn for commissioners into the realm of fiction, in an expanded 1852 edition of his novel The White Slave, which included a new chapter in the wake of the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. While Harriet Beecher Stowe did not raise the specter of commissioners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), just months later, Hildreth did precisely that in his reissue of The White Slave (originally published as The Slave in 1836), penning a scathing and detailed description of one fictional commissioner’s operation. Taking stock of the “slave catching commissioner,” his constable and a Circuit Court judge who entered as a “secret partner,” Hildreth sardonically observed that the three unscrupulous men “play beautifully into each other’s hands.” These “patriots and Union-saviours,” Hildreth disdainfully noted, succeeded in establishing “a general slave-catching and kidnapping business.” Set in Philadelphia, the trio of dubious characters were seemingly modeled off Philadelphia Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham, the notorious slave catcher George F. Alberti and Circuit Court justice Robert Grier. It was likely no coincidence that the name of Hildreth’s fictitious constable, Grip Curtis, closely resembled that of Boston commissioner George Ticknor Curtis, whom the novelist especially loathed. However, this brief fictional description of a commissioner’s operation helps illustrate contemporary familiarity with the law’s operations. [3]

While Hildreth is undoubtedly a crucial figure for my opening chapter, my challenge moving forward will be to find the best way to incorporate both Atrocious Judges and Hildreth’s fictional work in my section on commissioners’ contemporary notoriety.


[1] Richard Hildreth (ed.), Atrocious Judges: Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856), 35, 158-161, [WEB]; Robert M. Cover, “Atrocious Judges: Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression,” Columbia Law Review 68:5 (May 1968): 1003-1008; Robert M. Cover, Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), 149-158, 179; Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 255; Robert N. Strassfeld, “Atrocious Judges and Odious Courts Revisited,” Case Western Reserve Law Review 56:4 (Summer 2006): 899-900; Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 528.

[2] New York Evening Post, December 24, 1855; “A New Book by Richard Hildreth,” Washington, D.C. National Era, January 1, 1856; “Atrocious Judges,” New York Tribune, March 1, 1856.

[3] Richard Hildreth, The White Slave; Another Picture of Slave Life in America (London: George Routledge & Company, 1852), 236, [WEB].