As I finish up my initial draft of Chapter 1, I’ll need to work on refining my historiographical arguments and making abundantly clear what new insights my research has to offer. To begin with, I argue that when explaining the law’s failures, historians have tended to gravitate to the latter half  of the decade, where resistance peaked and a number of high-profile rescues exemplified the growing defiance of the statute. I suggest that this focus overlooks the crucial problem that defined the law’s enforcement from the outset: the availability and effectiveness of federal officers.

Next, about half-way through the chapter, I complicate Stanley Campbell‘s famous figure that 82.2% of alleged freedom seekers who appeared before U.S. commissioners were remanded to slavery. Campbell harnesses this statistic to paint a portrait of an effective body of federal officers implementing the 1850 law throughout the north. Disgruntled southerners, he writes, “had no way of knowing” that the rate of rendition was as high as 82.2%. [1] However, this blanket statistic overlooks the crucial reality on the ground—the reality that slaveholding claimants encountered every time they headed north. Not only were commissioners unavailable in many areas, but the lion’s share of renditions under the law occurred in a small cluster of spaces; elsewhere, throughout much of the free soil north, the law was seldom, if ever implemented. Campbell’s statistic would have done little to placate slaveholders’ underlying frustrations with the new law: they had demanded an effective, prompt and above all national force of federal officers who could aid them in recapturing enslaved men and women. By 1851, it was becoming increasingly apparent that this imagined force was far from a national reality.

Finally, I stress that in the three main hubs of enforcement which emerged during the period 1850 to 1854 (New York City, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA), a small group of aggressively pro-slavery U.S. commissioners worked in tandem with pro-law shadow groups to implement the statute. While recent scholars have largely overlooked these dynamics on the ground, I will need to find a compelling historiographical pitch to make the chapter’s overarching argument clear and comprehendible to readers.


[1]  Stanley Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 125, 135, 200-207.