Over the past two weeks, I’ve been drafting the first chapter of my thesis. This chapter will explore commissioners’ contemporary notoriety in the 1850s and how their image evolved during the post-war period, before finally tracing portrayals of commissioners through the scholarship of the 20th century to the most recent academic works.

Thus far, I have devoted most of my efforts to the post-war section, in large part because I wanted to allow myself extra time to grapple with the voluminous scholarship that will help me place post-war accounts and memoirs of commissioners in the broader context of late 19th century America.  As noted in my two previous research journal posts, the post-war era witnessed a dramatic evolution in portrayals of these Circuit Court officers acting under the auspices of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. For my historiography chapter, Professor Pinsker advised that I consult both David Blight’s magisterial study of Americans’ evolving memory of the Civil War, Race and Reunion (2001), and the concept of legal formalism, specifically as scholar Timothy Huebner has applied it when examining the post-war legacy of controversial Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. [1] While drawing upon Huebner’s attribution of legal formalism as a defense employed by Taney’s friends and defenders in the 1870s and beyond, I noticed strikingly similar arguments being articulated in post-war accounts of commissioners. In addition, I consulted several scholarly works about legal formalism in order to better understand the notion. [2]

As white Americans’ selective memory-making sidelined issues of race and softened the  popular memory of slavery, the concept of formalism encouraged a view of judicial officials as passive actors, shifting the onus for unpopular decisions from the “whims or caprice” of an individual to the law itself. The result was a series of laudatory accounts which extolled former commissioners as fierce defenders of law and order, while taking pains to separate commissioners’ enactment of their official duties from any personal inclinations about slavery. The “villainous tribe” of commissioners who had dominated the headlines of the 1850s precisely because of their purported pro-slavery proclivities were supplanted in the public consciousness by a coterie of restrained, honorable men, whose hands were tied by the fine print of the statute book, irrespective of their personal sentiments. [3]

Elsewhere, I’ve also started to craft an introduction, though the initial section on commissioners’ contemporary notoriety is proving  difficult. While I’ve been able to demonstrate how individual commissioners were well known by both Northern and Southern readers, I still have to settle upon the most effective way of explaining contemporary awareness of commissioners’ operations––such as their use of deputies to seize and arrest alleged freedom seekers. Newspapers often named deputies involved in apprehending freedom seekers, and generally speaking evinced a fairly nuanced grasp of the law’s operations. Integrating this (however briefly) into my discussion of commissioners will be the next challenge I face.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Timothy S. Huebner, “Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond—and before—Dred Scott,” Journal of American History 97:1 (June 2010): 32-33.

[2] William M. Wiecek, The Lost World of Classical Legal Thought: Law and Ideology in America, 1886-1937 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6-7, 64-122; Grant Gilmore, The Ages of American Law (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 36-39; Morton J. Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 253-266.

[3] Martin R. Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, (Philadelphia: by the author, 1852), 154-155; “Another Deed of Darkness,” Pennsylvania Freeman, December 11, 1851.