1850 Fugitive Slave Law

By Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

Category: Primary Sources

Writing Chapter 2

As I work on writing chapter 2, which looks at the arrest process, I’ll need to be sure to spotlight the new evidence I’ve uncovered during the course of my research. In particular, I’ll foreground the two cases where I’ve found significant caches of previously untapped archival material: the 1853 Wilkes Barre Case and the abortive January 1851 slave catching foray of North Carolinian Richard Riddick to Boston (mentioned in my previous outline of chapter 2). Together, these cases will help me underscore the chapter’s main thesis: while on paper, the law augured a seemingly imposing alliance between federal officers and slaveholders, that alliance often fizzled out on the ground level, leaving slaveholders frustrated and exasperated with what they saw (in many cases) as evidence of the treachery of federal officials, and indicative of the law’s overall failures.

Outlining Chapter 2

Having submitted my initial draft of chapter 1, which focuses on U.S. commissioners, it’s now time to map out my plans for chapter 2: a thematic chapter focused on the arrest process. Whereas chapter 1 focused on the totality of the enforcement landscape in the free soil north, and introduced the concept of a geography of enforcement, chapter 2 zooms in to the zones where the law was being enforced–against local opposition–to illuminate the struggle between  federal officers, backed by pro-law shadow groups, and anti-slavery vigilance committees.

  • Commissioners’ Deputies and Forming Posses
    • I will first need to explain how U.S. commissioners appointed deputies to execute their warrants of arrest. Offering a brief background of Section 5 of the law will allow me to segue into how it was actually implemented on the ground. It will be crucial to expand on the concept of the pro-law shadow groups (from the Union Safety Committee in New York, to acquiescent local constables and independent slave catchers). In the law’s key enforcement hubs, such groups helped to prop up the weak federal rendition system.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHY: In addition to touting the law’s enforcers as faithful and diligent, Stanley Campbell highlights the support the Pierce and Buchanan administration afforded commissioners’ deputies. [1] More recently, some scholars have stressed the power of anti-slavery resistance, especially the efforts of African Americans to resist the law throughout the border region. [2] In addressing the law’s arrest process, Robert Churchill has argued that by the late 1850s “the law quite literally came as a thief in the night,” observing how white northerners’ mounting antipathy towards the rendition process, coupled with the threat of violent resistance, pushed federal marshals and deputies to operate discreetly and often under the cover of darkness. [3]
    • NEW EVIDENCE: In addition to the data set of arrests I have been compiling,  I have uncovered new primary source material relating to two attempted arrests: North Carolina slaveholder Richard Riddick’s journey to Boston in January 1851, and several failed attempts to capture a freedom seeker named Lewis [4]; and over 30 pages of previously unpublished depositions of the failed arrest of William Thomas in the 1853 Wilkes Barre Case, drawn from the National Archives in Philadelphia. Together, these cases throw new light on the tenuousness of the arrest process and how anti-slavery activists managed to frustrate the process. In the attempted arrest of Lewis, the deputies expressed fear for their own safety (explicitly mentioning the actions of Boston’s anti-slavery vigilance committee) if they attempted to arrest Lewis. In the Wilkes Barre case, anti-slavery lawyers from Philadelphia’s revitalized vigilance committee helped charge the federal deputies for crimes under state law.  For additional context, I have culled numerous trial transcripts (including penalty hearings), and found more than 20 depositions from deputies in other cases throughout the country, published contemporaneously in newspapers or pamphlets that shed light on the arrest process.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHICAL INSIGHT: Harnessing the depositions of deputies, this section will illuminate how posses were formed, and the heavy reliance on specially deputized and temporary officers to help arrest alleged freedom seekers. The frequent use of temporary deputies who operated as part-time slave catchers (often simultaneously), blurred the lines between federal authority and private profiteering. Despite the law’s promises that federal officers would superintend the arrest of freedom seekers, a close analysis of the arrest process reveals that slaveholders still had to do a lot of the heavy lifting, often accompanying posses and at times physically assisting officers in subduing escapees, placing themselves in harm’s way. This helps explain why many slaveholders felt disgruntled with the law and federal officers, and grew disillusioned with the process over time. Posses also faced stiff resistance from northern communities, and free African Americans and freedom seekers in particular combatted arrest attempts with physical force, while anti-slavery lawyers often employed legal means to retaliate against deputies involved in enforcing the law. While Churchill has asserted that the law’s enforcers moved to covert tactics by the end of the decade, such controversial modes of arrest were already commonplace in the period between 1850-1854. The patterns of the arrest process, from hiring closed carriages to undertaking arrests at night, or in close proximity to rail lines, suggest the force and power of anti-slavery resistance was omnipresent in the minds of federal officials, whose tentativeness often irked claimants, even as the secretive mode of arrest outraged many northerners.
[1] Stanley Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 84, 87-89.

[2] Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Politicians and the Politics of Violence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[3] Robert Churchill, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 223.

[4] The attempted arrest of Lewis is mentioned in Gary Collison’s Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), though Lewis is not named, and Collison gleaned his information only from the reports published in the Boston Commonwealth. The correspondence between Richard Riddick, the Union Safety Committee lawyer and Boston’s federal officials are replete with new insights into the case and the arrest process. These letters are briefly described in John Hope Franklin’s A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1976), 153-154, though I plan to use the correspondence in considerably more detail in this chapter.

Outlining Chapter 1

As I prepare to write Chapter 1, which focuses on the struggle over appointing U.S. commissioners from 1850-1854, I am first outlining the main sections of the chapter. In doing so, I am highlighting what the existing historiography has to contribute, the new evidence I have assembled and what historiographic insights I will attempt to make at each stage. Bear in mind that this is a preliminary outline, that will likely change as I receive feedback and began to draft the chapter.


From 1850 to 1854, federal courts strained, and ultimately failed, to live up to the ambitious designs set forth in the new law. Vital to the statute’s successful rollout was a dramatic expansion of federal power, through the appointment of additional U.S. commissioners. Across the north, the struggle over naming new commissioners pitted black-led vigilance committees against an array of pro-law vigilance committees. What emerged from that wrangling was not a national network of enforcers, but rather a patchwork of staunchly pro-slavery commissioners operating in just a handful of locales, usually with the backing of pro-law vigilance committees. This geography of enforcement illuminates not only the power of resistance and local agency in curtailing the envisioned expansion of federal power, but also how slaveholders in time learned to navigate that geography, manipulating the mechanisms of enforcement to their advantage. The lack of commissioners also throws new light on how views of the law changed over time: as they sought out commissioners and confronted firsthand the haphazardness of the federal enforcement apparatus, slaveholders’ initial ebullience for the law gradually gave way to disillusionment. Yet even as slaveholders chafed at the spottiness of the law’s enforcement apparatus and its regional limitations, anti-slavery activists bristled at its limited successes.

  • Attempted Expansion
    • The 1850 law called for a dramatic expansion of the federal court system, with the law’s principal author, Virginia senator James Mason, even proposing that three additional U.S. commissioners be appointed in every northern county to handle the expected caseload under the new statute.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHY: Historians Richard Blackett, Eric Foner, Stanley Harrold and Steven Lubet have all noted the public pressure exerted against prospective commissioners. Blackett, who among those four scholars has given the most extensive treatment to commissioners, argues that “the paucity of commissioners in many areas, as well as the ostracism of those who accepted the post,” proved crucial to the law’s failure. “The absence of a commissioner mattered,” he writes, noting that “large swaths” of the north went without a U.S. commissioner. [1]
    • NEW EVIDENCE: From the appointment papers at the National Archives in Philadelphia, I can harness over a dozen previously untapped letters between prospective commissioners throughout Pennsylvania and federal officials in Philadelphia, revealing the difficulties in appointing U.S. commissioners, particularly in the fall of 1850. Likewise, an invaluable (and previously un-cited) letter written by West Chester, PA commissioner James L. Jones yields insight into his reasoning for accepting an appointment, his fervent Unionism. At the same time, a Carlisle lawyer, J. Ellis Bonham, revealed that he was unsure if the law would offer enough financial incentive to offset the consequences of accepting the post. In addition, letters, diaries and newspaper columns authored by slaveholders offer insight into the workings of the federal enforcement mechanism, and the ways claimants sought out and interacted with commissioners. Finally, an in-progress spreadsheet of U.S. commissioners can provide the first-ever quantification of how many commissioners were actually handling fugitive cases.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHICAL INSIGHT: This section will reveal the haphazardness of the federal enforcement apparatus and the chaotic human reality behind it, while also quantifying the number of commissioners to demonstrate the inadequacy of the federal enforcement mechanism. The rendition system never became a truly national means of recapturing escapees, which helps throw light on southerners’ mounting dismay with the law and its efficacy.
  • Geography of Enforcement
    • I introduced this term “geography of enforcement” in the initial draft of my introduction, as another way of understanding the law’s enforcement, especially in light of what historian Robert Churchill has termed the “geography of violence.” [2] In this section, I will need to refine that idea, and build off of my new statistics on commissioners and the arrest process to show how the law’s enforcement largely revolved around several key hubs of enforcement: namely, Cincinnati, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York City.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHY: Robert Churchill claims that Cincinnati was “the most active commissioner’s court in the nation” when it came to enforcing the 1850 law, while also noting the prevalence of arrests in New York City. [3]
    • NEW EVIDENCE: In addition to numerous connections between U.S. commissioners, deputy forces and Union Safety Committees in the coastal cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia (pro-law groups buttressed by leading merchants and bankers), reports of fugitive cases in southern papers, as well as letters written by southern claimants exuding praise for U.S. commissioners and circulated in southern papers, reveal that southerners in time learned to manipulate the mechanisms of enforcement and bring their cases before commissioners known to be more amenable to slaveholders. Harrisburg’s Richard McAllister, for instance, brazenly marketed his office among southern presses, while Commissioner George W. Morton, and his partnership with U.S. Marshal Henry F. Tallmadge, became a consistent favorite of southern claimants journeying to New York City.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHICAL INSIGHT: Even while negotiating the threadbare and haphazard federal enforcement apparatus, southerners in time learned to manipulate the mechanisms of enforcement, seeking out commissioners favorable to their interests. However, the geography of enforcement was shaped both by human actors (complaisant U.S. commissioners and their sophisticated deputy operations) as well as political divisions, and claimants flocked to key hubs where prominent groups of northern merchants  and bankers professed support for the 1850 law, in some cases even helping to cover slaveholders’ legal fees. Although the law never truly became an efficacious national instrument, it did manage to operate successfully within several locales for extended periods. This nuance helps illuminate how slaveholders could be disillusioned over the law’s limitations, even as anti-slavery activists fumed over the law’s geographically limited successes.


[1] Richard Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 56-64, 458.

[2] Robert Churchill, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[3] Churchill, The Underground Railroad, 7, 165.

The 1853 Wilkes Barre Case and Legal Retaliation Against Commissioners’ Deputies

On Saturday morning, September 3, 1853, the palaver of travelers hustling to catch the early stage out of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania was abruptly broken, as sounds of a violent confrontation emanated from the dining room of Gilchrist’s Phoenix Hotel.  From his room on the inn’s third floor, 51-year-old attorney Henry Pettibone craned his neck out the window, just in time to observe a man he recognized as William Thomas–an African-American waiter employed at the hotel, roughly 30 years in age–throw open the dining room door and head down an alley towards the Susquehanna River, “with two men holding onto him, one at each arm.” [1] Thomas eventually freed himself from the grasp of his would-be captors, but moments later, gun shots rang out, startling residents throughout the small central Pennsylvania borough.

Warrant of Arrest

The warrant of arrest for William Thomas, August 31, 1853. (RG 21, National Archives, Philadelphia)

As locals would soon learn, federal officers tasked with implementing the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had come to Wilkes Barre in pursuit of Thomas, who was claimed as a fugitive by slaveholder Isham Keith of Fauquier County, Virginia. The warrant for Thomas’s arrest, issued three days earlier on August 31, 1853, by notorious U.S. Commissioner Edward Ingraham of Philadelphia, was even endorsed by Circuit Court judge Robert C. Grier, before finding its way into the hands of three U.S. deputy marshals: George Wynkoop, John Jenkins and James Cresson. [2]

Heavily armed and bearing Ingraham’s warrant in hand, these three federal officers would make the 100-plus mile trek to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in a bid to arrest Thomas and carry him back to Philadelphia for a hearing before Commissioner Ingraham. While the slaveholder Keith did not accompany the group personally (it is unclear if he even made the trip to Philadelphia, or deputed an agent to act on his behalf via a power-of-attorney), two Virginians rounded out the slave catching posse: Dudley M. Pattie, a 30-year-old merchant from Warrington, Virginia, and 46-year-old James Settle, a clerk from Culpepper County, Virginia. Both knew the claimant personally and were brought along to identify Thomas.

The three deputies had arrived the previous evening, Friday, September 2, lodging at Gilchrist’s hotel, and were among the guests who took the early 6 o’clock breakfast the next morning. The two servers on staff that morning–Henry L. Patton and Thomas, both African Americans–waited on them. After dining, the three officers moved down the hall to the bar room, where they congregated with Pattie and Settle, ironing out the arrangements for the arrest. Pattie was to approach and identify Thomas, and the deputies would move in fast and arrest the waiter. Minutes later, they emerged, “walking rapidly” down the hallway, just as innkeeper Peter McCartney Gilchrist was sitting down to eat his breakfast. Gilchrist “supposed they were persons who had been stopping about town, and wanted breakfast to go with the stages,” though they ignored his friendly overture and rushed past him. Approaching Thomas from behind as the waiter was pouring coffee, Pattie took hold of his right shoulder, declaring, “This is the boy I require you to take under the warrant.” [3]

In an instant, Wynkoop, Crossen and Jenkins lunged, hurling Thomas to the floor, though their efforts to handcuff the alleged freedom seeker failed twice. In the meantime, Thomas grabbed hold of a carving knife, around the same time as Settle entered the room. Thomas “immediately recognized Mr. Settle,” according to Pattie, and “made a desperate effort to strike him with the point of the knife,” though in the melee Thomas’s arm was hit, and only the handle of the knife struck Settle. Still, it was enough to cause “serious injury upon his elbow,” and frighten the Virginian. He later told Commissioner Ingraham that the alleged escapee “made a desperate lunge at me with it [the knife] and could, I believe, have killed me but for Jenkins and Pattie, who caught his hand.” Even five weeks later, Settle groused that “the soreness has not yet left” his arm. When Jenkins and Pattie wrested the carving knife from Thomas’s hand, he procured a fork, and subsequently “a small breakfast knife,” and then used the handcuff the federal officers had attempted to fasten on his wrist to deliver a blow to Cresson, leaving the deputy marshal bleeding “copiously” from his head. With Cresson wounded, Thomas struggled out the door–the moment Henry Pettibone observed from his perch three floors up–wrestled free of the deputies’ grasp, and charged into the Susquehanna River, even as the officers fired at him. Standing in the river, as the puzzled posse conferred on the bank, Thomas defiantly declared that he would not be taken alive. Soon, the reports of gun fire drew out a large concourse of shocked local residents, who reproached the officers verbally, if not with physical force. [4]

As the five men struggled with Thomas–both in the dining room and along the banks of the Susquehanna–the federal officers drew upon one of the 1850 law’s more controversial features, situated within Section 5, which empowered the deputies to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus of the proper county, when necessary.” Such a formal call would  hardly have been necessary in the slaveholding states, where draconian slave codes (laws enacted at the state level) and the relatively consistent cooperation lent by white southerners writ large, helped to form what Walter Johnson has termed the “carceral landscape.” That is, the white populace, stirred by fears of violent slave insurrections as well as the security of their own human property, could generally be counted on to police anyone who looked like a potential escapee–engendering a landscape of constant peril and heightened vulnerability for the freedom seeker. Yet that was anything but the case in the free states, where increasingly African Americans took violent stands against slaveholders and federal deputies tasked with arresting them, and vigilance operatives–both black and white–often helped to conceal their location. The 1850 law’s principal author, Virginia senator James Mason, spoke to precisely this disorienting reality (that is, disorienting for slaveholders) when he offered up this analogy of locating a freedom seeker who had escaped onto free soil: “you may as well go down into the sea, and endeavor to recover from his native element a fish which had escaped from you, as expect to recover such fugitive.” In the free states, Mason grumbled, “every difficulty is thrown in the way by the population to avoid discovery of where he is, and after this discovery is made, every difficulty is thrown in the way of executing process upon him.” Thus when either Wynkoop, Jenkins or Cresson invoked the provision in Section 5–and cried to the innkeeper Gilchrist, who was still in the dining room, “We are United States officers and we command assistance”–they were demanding help from a populace not committed to upholding a slave regime, a populace they could be sure would come enthusiastically to their aid. Even though the text of the 1850 law decreed that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required,” this was the design imprinted on the statute book, not necessarily the reality on the ground. [5]

The Virginian Dudley Pattie, reared in a slave society and its mode of community surveillance, clearly carried north with him some set of expectations about the support he and his posse could expect, however misplaced those assumptions proved to be. Some six weeks later, when deposed before Commissioner Ingraham, Pattie chafed that even as “the Marshals summoned the bystanders… without distinction, to render assistance,” only he and fellow Virginian Settle answered their call. There was Gilchrist, the innkeeper, who by his own account only halfheartedly attempted to subdue Thomas, before the waiter nearly landed a blow on his employer, prompting Gilchrist to beat a hasty retreat into the nearby bar room. Then 38-year-old David Seaman entered, and evaded the marshal’s call by pleading a “lame back,” and with a rather salty retort to one of the federal officers: “I told him I had enough to do to take care of myself.” (Patton, the other waiter, remembered Seaman’s reply differently: “If you five can’t take him,” Seaman reportedly said, “we won’t help you.”) Still, Seaman proved mildly acquiescent, if rough around the edges–he, along with another local, 40-year-old merchant Francis L. Bowman–led Cresson to Sheriff William Palmer’s office. However, Palmer was unsympathetic with posse’s mission or claims to federal authority, declaring that “he had other business besides taking n—rs.” Pattie, unaware of the sheriff’s stance, expected assistance from local authorities. When he eyed a boat manned by a dozen men down the river, he assumed it was the sheriff “coming to the assistance of the Marshal,” and returned to Gilchrist’s, where he confidently assured one spectator “that all was right–believing that if the boy had not escaped from the hands of the Marshal, that the Sheriff had rendered timely assistance.” [6]

deposition photo

Deposition of William C. Gildersleeve, the Wilkes Barre resident who helped bring charges against Commissioner Ingraham’s deputies. (RG 21, National Archives, Philadelphia)

Instead, Sheriff Palmer was fielding requests from William Gildersleeve, a 57-year-old merchant and abolitionist. Together with Judge Oristus Collins, a local lawyer, Gildersleeve had been pacing the banks of the river, angrily demanding the names of the three deputy marshals. Collins, who was “apparently much excited” was observed “talking with the officers, with a paper in his hand… asking questions and making memoranda.” Later, Jonathan Slocum, a 38-year-old attorney, eyed Gildersleeve at Sheriff Palmer’s office, “urging the sheriff to execute a warrant”–for the arrest of the three deputies. By his own admission, Gildersleeve had not witnessed the events that unfolded along the riverbank–including when the deputies fired at Thomas–though he swore out an affidavit that buttressed the warrant of arrest for the three deputies on charges of inciting riot and assault and battery upon Thomas. When the posse, sensing the antipathy of the local residents, beat a hasty retreat, Gildersleeve convinced Sheriff Palmer to telegraph the warrant to the nearby town of Hazleton, where they were briefly detained. However, the constable in Hazleton was “overawed by such pompous U.S. officers,” according to one account, and the party was released and proceeded back to Philadelphia. Yet learning of the case–which garnered headlines expressing shock and outrage throughout the northern press–two Philadelphia anti-slavery lawyers, one of whom was the noted David Paul Brown–journeyed to Wilkes Barre and entered Gildersleeve’s store several weeks after the incident. The two men introduced themselves, and armed with additional facts (including the deputies’ actual names) laid out evidence for another warrant of arrest. This time, scarcely a month after the botched arrest, on Tuesday, October 4, a warrant of arrest from Wilkes Barre magistrate Gilbert C. Burrows was served upon Jenkins and Cresson, who were imprisoned under state law in Philadelphia. (Wynkoop was out of town at the time). The two beleaguered deputies immediately petitioned Justice Robert Grier for a writ of habeas corpus, insisting that “all the acts done by them were done under the authority of the warrant issued by the said Commissioner.” [7]

Grier detail

Justice Robert C. Grier (House Divided Project)

From October 1853 onwards, the case took a number of twists and turns. Magistrate Burrows’s October warrant was tossed aside by a furious Justice Grier. In the habeas corpus hearing for Cresson and Jenkins, Grier held no punches, seething: “If any tuppenny magistrate, or any unprincipled interloper can come in, and cause to be arrested, the officers of the United States, whenever they please, it is a sad state of affairs.” In a portion of the draft of his decision that was crossed out, Grier honed in on precisely why the legal retaliation directed at Jenkins and Cresson carried with it alarming implications not only for federalism, but the practical enforcement of the 1850 law. There was “no more unpleasant duty imposed upon the courts & officers of the United States than that of arresting and deporting fugitives,” Grier noted, taking stock of the impact of violent resistance led by African Americans, and freedom seekers in particular (such as Thomas). Alleged escapees were “exhorted & encouraged to resist the officers unto death, and helped to escape,” as “mobs of unprincipled persons” also “frequently endeavor to evade [the law]…. by abusing … the process of the state court… by persecuting the officers of the law have been compelled to perform a most unpleasant & dangerous duty.” Grier discharged both Cresson and Jenkins. [8]

Little time elapsed before a grand jury in Luzerne County found a true bill against all three deputies for riot and assault and battery in November 1853, though an unspecified “defect” gummed up the proceedings. Undeterred, proceedings for their arrest continued, and on January 31, 1854, Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Jeremiah S. Black issued a capias ad respondendum, a legal mechanism used to bring a defendant to answer for a civil action. As a result, the three deputies were arrested in Philadelphia on February 6, 1854, and held on $5,000 bail each. Jenkins, Cresson and now Wynkoop petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, only this time their case was brought before District Court judge John K. Kane. Like Grier, Kane discharged the three men eight days later on February 14, 1854. In the intervening months, another grand jury in Luzerne County indicted the three men on the same charges, landing them in jail for a third time, before Judge Kane discharged them again in early May 1854. While that marked an end to the case (some nine months after the attempted arrest), a disgruntled Kane revealed something of the stress such legal retaliation placed on the federal courts’ already threadbare enforcement apparatus, which was straining to meet the demands of the 1850 law. “If a Marshal of the United States, in his efforts to execute process, issued from the Federal courts, is to be compelled constantly to suffer and combat with annoyances like this, his office becomes anything but a sinecure,” Kane wrote in his decision, “and in time it will be difficult to ensure the faithful performance of such duties.” [9]

Crucially, the legal harassment of Jenkins, Crossen and Wynkoop did not occur in isolation. This next post contextualizes this case with other instances of legal retaliation against the deputies tasked with executing U.S. commissioners’ warrants of arrest under the 1850 law.


[1] Deposition of Henry Pettibone, October 12, 1853, United States ex relat. Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, Entry 42-E-11-8.1 and 42-E-11-9.8, Box 1, Habeas Corpus Files, 1848-1862, Record Group 21, National Archives, Philadelphia.

[2] Warrant of Arrest for William Thomas, August 31, 1853, Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, National Archives, Philadelphia; All three deputies were regular officers of the federal courts, not special appointees under the law. Jenkins owed his appointment to  the regular U.S. Marshal, Francis M. Wynkoop, who had taken advantage of a law passed by Congress in February 1853, authorizing marshals to appoint “such a number of persons, not exceeding five, as the judges of their respective courts shall determine, to attend upon the grand and other juries, and for other necessary purposes,” and receive $2 per day for their services. On May 19, 1853, Marshal Wynkoop had written federal District Court judge John K. Kane, who authorized the appointment of three deputies or bailiffs–among those appointed was Jenkins, on June 10, 1853. See Francis M. Wynkoop to the Honorable the Judges of the Circuit Court of the United States in and for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, May 19, 1853, John Jenkins Appointment, June 10, 1853, Entry 42-E-133, Box 1, Appointment Papers, Record Group 21, National Archives, Philadelphia; and The Statutes at Large and Treaties of the United States of America (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1845-1873), 10:161-169, [WEB]. Later in June 1853, Jenkins and Cresson, denoted as “deputies Marshals,” arrested a German man for watch smuggling in Philadelphia. See “Charged with Smuggling,” Philadelphia Daily Pennsylvanian, July 1, 1853.

[3] Depositions of Peter McCartney Gilchrist and Dudley M. Pattie, October 12-13, 1853, Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, National Archives, Philadelphia; Depositions of George Wynkoop and Henry L. Patton, in “The WilkesBarre Case—The Testimony,” Pennsylvania Freeman, October 20, 1853.

[4] Deposition of James Settle, October 13, 1853, Box 3, Habeas Corpus Cases, 1791-1915, Record Group 21, National Archives, Philadelphia; Depositions of George Wynkoop and Henry L. Patton, in “The WilkesBarre Case—The Testimony,” Pennsylvania Freeman, October 20, 1853.

[5] Deposition of Peter McCartney Gilchrist, October 12, 1853, Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, National Archives, Philadelphia; 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Lillian Goodman Law Library, The Avalon Project, Yale Law Library, [WEB]; Appendix to Cong. Globe, 31st Cong., 1st sess., 1583 (1850), [WEB]; For the “carceral landscape,” see Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 209-243.

[6] Depositions of Peter McCartney Gilchrist, Dudley M. Pattie, David Seaman and Francis L. Bowman, October 12-13, 1853, Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, National Archives, Philadelphia; Deposition of Henry L. Patton, in “The WilkesBarre Case—The Testimony,” Pennsylvania Freeman, October 20, 1853.

[7] Depositions of Francis L. Bowman, Henry Pettibone, Jonathan Slocum and William Gildersleeve, October 12-13, 1853, Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, National Archives, Philadelphia; James Cresson and John Jenkins Petition, [October 4, 1853], To the Honorable Robert C. Grier, Judge of the Circuit Court of the United States, Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, National Archives, Philadelphia; “Cruelty and Bloodshed,” Cleveland, OH Leader, September 9, 1853; “The Wilkes Barre Slave Case–Arrest of the Deputy Slave Catchers,” Pennsylvania Freeman, October 13, 1853.

[8] “The Wilkes Barre Slave Case–Arrest of the Deputy Slave Catchers,” Pennsylvania Freeman, October 13, 1853; Justice Robert C. Grier, Draft Opinion, [October 1853], Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, National Archives, Philadelphia.

[9] Warrant of Arrest for James Cresson, John Jenkins, George Wynkoop and Isham Keith, January 31, 1854, United States ex relat. Jenkins & Cresson v. Chollet, Entry 42-E-11-8.1 and 42-E-11-9.8, Box 1, Habeas Corpus Files, 1848-1862, Record Group 21, National Archives, Philadelphia; Opinion of Judge John K. Kane, May 9, 1854, United States vs. Samuel Allen, Esq., Writ of Habeas Corpus, Entry 42-E-11-8.1 and 42-E-11-9.8, Box 1, Habeas Corpus Files, 1848-1862, Record Group 21, National Archives, Philadelphia; “True Bill Found,” Sunbury, PA American, November 19, 1853; “The Wilkesbarre Slave Case—Judge Kane,” Philadelphia Daily Pennsylvanian, May 10, 1854.

Research Trip to Philadelphia

During the winter break, Dickinson’s History Department funded a research trip for this Honors project to Philadelphia, where over two days I conducted archival research at three repositories: the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives.

At the Library Company,  which traces its origins to a lending library founded at the behest of Benjamin Franklin in 1731, I poured over books, pamphlets and scrapbooks from the personal library of U.S. Commissioner (and longtime Library Company member) Edward D. Ingraham. Although there was no material directly dealing with his much-criticized implementation of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, I still uncovered an array of biographical information on the notorious commissioner. A bibliophile, antiquarian and regular auction house bidder, Ingraham–who was in his late 50s by the time he served as U.S. Commissioner–was usually clad in relatively mundane clothes, “a blue dress coat, plain pantaloons and vest,” complemented by a “characteristic hat, small in size and with the brim archly turned up at the sides.” He was, in the eyes of the Philadelphia Daily Reporter, the consummate “book-worm.” [1] Even as he handled fugitive cases throughout the early 1850s, signing warrants of arrest and remanding men and women to bondage, Ingraham was collecting rare books, purchasing autographed letters, visiting auction houses and carefully clipping (and properly citing) newspaper articles on topics that fascinated him for scrapbooks. “How much of his happiness and pride were bound up” in his copy of Shakespeare’s 1623 folio, pondered one sympathetic Philadelphia paper. [2] Of particular interest to Ingraham during the waning years of his life (he died suddenly on November 5, 1854) was a scrapbook about the post office he began scrupulously assembling in August 1851. However, Ingraham was no ordinary stamp collector–instead of collecting stamps, he voraciously collected newspaper articles about stamps, and was particularly engrossed in a controversy over the post office’s new pre-stamped envelopes that spiraled into the public eye in 1853. [3] Ingraham also owned a number of titles related to slavery–ranging from a political speech to a pamphlet containing one Louisiana slaveholder’s instructions on slave management. However, these books contain no notations in his hand (except his name), as the avid collector apparently made a practice of not scrawling notes in the marginalia. [4]

Next, I briefly visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, specifically to look at the minute books of the Franklin Fire Company, a group operating out of the Southwark neighborhood of Philadelphia. Prior to leaving for Philadelphia, I had run the names of the individuals Ingraham turned to as deputies during his stint as U.S. commissioner (1850-1854) through newspaper databases, looking for possible connections and insights into how the federally authorized slave catching posses were formed. I had already discovered that one of the special deputies Ingraham regularly relied upon, Southwark constable John Agen, lived in a boarding house run by William Byerly, who himself served as a special deputy to Commissioner Ingraham in the arrest of alleged freedom seeker Henry Massey in September 1854. [5] Searching their names jointly through newspaper databases unearthed a seemingly commonplace article about a trumpet presentation from Philadelphia’s Franklin Fire Company to the Empire Fire Company of New York. However, the members who headed up the Franklin Fire Company’s committee of presentation overlapped with those who composed the posses employed by Commissioner Ingraham, suggesting that the Franklin Fire Company served as something akin to a receptacle for able-bodied men willing to execute the controversial 1850 law–for financial gain. [6] At HSP, I scoured the minutes of the Franklin Fire Company for any references to its members’ involvement in fugitive cases. Despite the lack of specific references to the 1850 law, the minutes helped corroborate details about membership, and also revealed that Byerly was serving as president of the company when he was deputized by Commissioner Ingraham in September 1854. [7]

Afterwards, I headed to the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives, where I poured over Circuit and District court records relating to the law’s enforcement. The Appointment papers yielded valuable insights into the federal courts’ struggle to appoint enough U.S. commissioners to handle the anticipated caseload under the new 1850 law; though the most important find came in the Habeas Corpus files. Those files abounded with writs of habeas corpus filed by anti-slavery attorneys against U.S. Marshals (or in some cases, deputy marshals) in an effort to force the marshal to produce the captive freedom seeker and remove the legal process from the hands of a U.S. commissioner to a more amenable state court. Marshals responding to the writs of habeas corpus usually produced as evidence the warrant of arrest signed by the U.S. commissioner–consequently, many of the warrants still reside within the habeas corpus files, instead of the National Archives’s distinct series of fugitive slave case files. Among the former were a sizable cache of documents related to a September 1853 case which unfolded in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, where three of Commissioner Ingraham’s deputies attempted–and failed–to arrest a freedom seeker, and were later arrested for trespass and assault and battery. The protracted point, counterpoint between Luzerne County, Pennsylvania officials and Federal judges Robert C. Grier (Circuit Court) and John K. Kane (U.S. District Court) produced over 50 pages of depositions and petitions from eyewitnesses, claimants and the deputies themselves, previously untapped by historians. [8]

Moving forward, the trove of documents relating to the Wilkes Barre case will undoubtedly prove crucial in this Honors project, particularly for Chapter 2, which focuses explicitly on the arrest process. My next priority is placing the 1853 case, and the practice of legal retaliation against U.S. commissioners’ deputies, in broader context, particularly in light of the efforts of the incoming Franklin Pierce administration to bolster the law’s enforcement–and support its enforcers.


[1] “Philadelphia Eccentrics,” Philadelphia Daily Reporter, March 16, 1854; The Reporter’s description of “The Book-Worm,” who went unnamed, was part of a series of “sketches of sundry Philadelphians, who are celebrated for their eccentricities, either of person, manner, habits, taste or character.” While the paper avoided naming the subjects of their sketches (to ensure “no one can be offended”), a clipping of this column was inserted in one of Ingraham’s own books, which he had gifted to a friend in 1849. See Edward Ingraham, A Sketch of the Events which preceded the Capture of Washington, by the British, on the Twenty-Fourth of August, 1814 (Philadelphia: Charles Marshall, 1849), Library Company of Philadelphia.

[2] “Sale of Mr. Ingraham’s Library, Autographs, &c.,” Philadelphia Daily Bulletin, March 13, 1855.

[3] Scrapbook, started by Edward Ingraham, August 30, 1851, in Table of Post Offices in the United States on the First Day of January 1851 (Washington, D.C.: W. & J.C. Greer, 1851), Library Company of Philadelphia; “Death of Edward D. Ingraham, Esq.,” Philadelphia Daily Bulletin, November 6, 1854.

[4] The Library Company of Philadelphia holds several slavery-related volumes from Ingraham’s extensive personal library. See Speech of Robert J. Breckinridge: Delivered in the Court-House Yard at Lexington, Ky., on the 12th day of October, 1840 (Lexington, KY: N.L. & J.W. Finnell, 1840); The Orthographic Will of John McDonogh, of Louisiana, Formerly a Citizen of Baltimore (Baltimore: James Lucas, 1850); The Memoranda of Instructions of John McDonogh, Late of Macdonoghville, State of Louisiana, To His Executors, Relative to the Management of His Estate (Baltimore: James Lucas, 1851). For a complete listing of Ingraham’s library upon his death, prepared for the sale in early 1855, see Executrix’ Sale. Miscellaneous Library, of the late E.D. Ingraham, Esq. (Philadelphia:  M. Thomas & Sons, 1855) [WEB]. Curiously, the Library Company’s copy of the Executrix’ Sale was inscribed by Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who donated the book (it is unclear where) on December 4, 1860.

[5] 1850 U.S. Census, Southwark Ward 3, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA, Family 679, Ancestry; For details on the Henry Massey Case, and the hearing (at which Byerly testified) see “U.S. Commissioners’ Office,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 26, 1854.

[6] “Trumpet Presentation,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, January 10, 1851; two of the men on the committee, John Agen and John Thornton, had been involved in the arrest of Henry Garnett in October 1850. While Thompson Tully, the third deputy involved in the arrest, was not listed as a member of the committee, two other members of the Tully family were. In addition, William Byerly was part of the committee, and would later become involved in an 1854 case for Ingraham. For details on the deputies who arrested Henry Garnett, see “Important Fugitive Slave Cases in Philadelphia,” Honesdale, PA Wayne County Herald, October 24, 1850.

[7] Minute Book of the Franklin Fire Company, 1838-1854, September 17, 1850, March 14, 1851, March 12, 1852, July 14, 1854, Fire Companies of Philadelphia Collection, Collection Number 0205, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[8] United States ex relat. Jenkins & Crossen v. Chollet, Entry 42-E-11-8.1 and 42-E-11-9.8, Box 1, Habeas Corpus Files, 1848-1862, Record Group 21, National Archives, Philadelphia.

Richard Hildreth’s Atrocious Judges (1856)

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].

U.S. Commissioners in the Cartoon Literature of the 1850s

As I continue to explore sources for the opening chapter of my thesis, I am turning to the contemporary cartoon literature of the 1850s. Visual depictions of commissioners themselves, as well as the arrest, hearing or rendition process, offer valuable insights into how Americans digested and understood the operations of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

Hamlet rendition Hail Columbia

First appearing in the New York Atlas on October 13, 1850, this dramatic and provocative depiction of Hamlet’s rendition was reprinted days later in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. (New York Anti-Slavery Standard, October 17, 1850, Accessible Archives)

Perhaps the first rendering of the law in action, the engraving “Hamlet in Chains” appeared in the New York Atlas on October 13, 1850. The Sunday weekly provided its readers with a dramatized version of the rendition of James Hamlet, the first alleged freedom seeker returned under the auspices of the 1850 law. The Atlas’ engraving contrasts Hamlet’s plight with a cheerful crowd of complicit but inattentive white onlookers, and the nation’s hypocritical claims to be the “home of the oppressed” and a land where “all men are born equal.” In crafting Hamlet’s cry––”Am I not a man and a Brother”––the engravers borrowed a familiar slogan of anti-slavery campaigns, in much the same way they depicted the alleged freedom seeker in a loin cloth, another trope of anti-slavery iconography. A man or horseback, perhaps U.S. Marshal Henry Talmadge, appears ready to forcibly return Hamlet to bondage. Just days later, the engraving was reprinted and praised by another New York serial, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. “The engraving tells its own story,” the paper added, noting that it ably captured “the outrage upon Liberty and Humanity which, in the name of law, was perpetrated in this city.” Hamlet, with his “chained and upraised arms and imploring look to Heaven” was pleading his humanity, the paper claimed, even as “the multitude behind him” seemed indifferent to his fate.  [1]


Hamlet Rendition 1850

The New York Atlas depicts the rendition hearing of alleged fugitive James Hamlet. (New York Atlas, October 20, 1850)

In its next edition, the Atlas included an engraving of the hearing room that evoked many of the fears Northerners harbored about the immense powers the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law imbued in commissioners. The paper tellingly juxtaposed Hamlet, kneeling before Commissioner Alexander Gardiner and clothed only in a loin cloth, with the assortment of patriotic symbols that adorn the hearing room wall. A banner reading “Hail Columbia, Happy Land,” and a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, bearing the quote “Where Liberty Dwells, There Is My Country,” gives lie to the nation’s complicity with the institution of slavery. As scholar Jeannine DeLombard notes, the kneeling bondsmen clothed only in a loin cloth harkened back to a symbol used in British campaigns against the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, providing readers with “a familiar sentimental icon of the innocent, suffering slave.” [2] Meanwhile, Commissioner Gardiner decrees the fugitive’s fate from aloft a throne, a symbol of despotic authority, while two armed marshals stand poised to whisk Hamlet away. The Atlas‘ depiction of Gardiner, coming just weeks after the law’s passage, reveals a great deal about Northerners’ apprehensions over the drastic expansion of the Federal judiciary, specifically as it manifested itself through the new powers placed in U.S. Commissioners. Connoting Gardiner’s post as U.S. Commissioner with tropes of tyrannical, unchecked power helps illustrate how Northerners opposed to the law viewed the commissioner and the “summary process” of the commissioner’s hearing room.


October 1850 engraving

“Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law” followed on the heels of the pair of Atlas engravings. (Library of Congress)

Just weeks later, in late October 1850, the New York firm of Hoff & Bloede issued its own engraving, from the hand of Theodor Kaufmann, entitled “Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law.” [3] A group of four freedom seekers are pursued by a contingent of armed slave catchers, who are traversing a cornfield. Two slave catchers have fired on the group, and two of the freedom seekers are felled by the bullets. The law, the engraving strongly implies, gives free license to barbaric acts of violence. Much like the Atlas engravings that preceded his own work, Kaufmann contrasts the bloody hunt for freedom seekers with a Bible verse and the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, a not so subtle jab at the law’s flagrant violation of avowed Christian and American principles.


1851 Engraving

This 1851 engraving “Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law,” was first published in Boston. (Library of Congress)

Later in 1851, a Boston firm released yet another engraving criticizing the law’s operations, fittingly titled “Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law.” [4] On the left, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison fend off what appears to be a U.S. Commissioner or U.S. Marshal, adorned with a star on his hat, who is riding on the back of Secretary of State Daniel Webster. The commissioner, with rope in one hand and a slave collar in the other, bellows, “Don’t back out Webster, if you do we’re ruind,” a reference to Webster’s robust support for the 1850 law, in hopes of gaining Southern backing for the 1852 Whig presidential nomination. Webster, meanwhile, clutches the Constitution in his left hand, a sardonic reference to his avowal to protect the Constitution and Union at all costs. Both the “Practical Illustration” and the Atlas’ earlier engraving “Hamlet in Court,” offer unflattering depictions of commissioners. However, whereas the Atlas portrayed Commissioner Gardiner as a source of despotic, unchecked power, the commissioner in the “Practical Illustration” cartoon appears rougher and cruder, a gruff hireling engaged in a dirty, nefarious business.


[1] “The Fugitive Slave Law…. Hamlet in Chains,” New York National Anti-Slavery Standard, October 17, 1850; Jeannine Marie DeLombard, Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 35-36.

[2] DeLombard, Slavery on Trial, 35-38.

[3] Bibliographic information from the Library of Congress.

[4] Bibliographic information from the Library of Congress; the engraving has been attributed to the artist Edward Williams Clay.

U.S. Commissioners in Antebellum America

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.

Alexander Gardiner’s Letters

Known for the “urbanity of his manner,” Alexander Gardiner had already forged an impressive career at the age of 31. A lawyer, Princeton graduate, Clerk of the U.S. Circuit Court and U.S. Commissioner, he boasted a sterling resume, and was brother-in-law to a former U.S. president to boot. Yet his most enduring moment in the public eye would come on September 26, 1850–just days after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law–when, as Federal commissioner, he heard the first case under the controversial new statute. Remanding alleged fugitive James Hamlet to slavery, Gardiner saw his name tossed about in newspaper reports throughout the intensely divided nation, alternatively praised and denounced. Then, just months later, on January 16, 1851, the then 32-year-old lawyer abruptly fell ill. Five days later he was dead, of what one report described as a “bilious colic.” [1]

Gardiner hailed from a prominent New York family, which traced its lineage in the community of East Hampton back to 1639. Alexander’s father, the politician David Gardiner, had graduated from Yale in 1804–alongside John C. Calhoun–and served four years as a state senator in Albany. By 1843, the Gardiners had grown increasingly close to President John Tyler, and were traveling with the president aboard the steamboat USS Princeton in February 1844, when a sudden explosion killed David Gardiner and several members of Tyler’s cabinet. Yet in the months after the accident, the recently widowed Tyler continued to pursue his courtship of David Gardiner’s daughter, and Alexander’s doting sister, Julia Gardiner. [2]

After Julia’s marriage to the president in June 1844, Alexander Gardiner’s new connection to the First Family redefined his own social and political sense of self. During a visit to Washington in the fall of 1844, he eagerly described the thrill of attending a “very splendid” cabinet dinner alongside President Tyler, Julia, Secretary of State John Calhoun and other leading government luminaries. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the annexation of Texas, the top priority of his brother-in-law’s remaining months in the presidency, authoring a pro-annexation editorial–all with an eye, of course, to his own future prospects. “It may be of especial service to me,” Gardiner confided in his brother. [3] He was understandably elated when Tyler heaped praise on his editorial. “He came into my room with it in his hand,” Julia informed her brother, “saying ‘this piece of Alex’s is glorious–I had not conceived… he was so strong a writer–why his style is of the highest & richest kind!” A budding social and political alliance, Tyler appeared extremely fond of his substantially younger brother-in-law, so much so that some scholars have styled him an “unofficial Presidential aide.” For his part, Gardiner was even forced to issue a public disclaimer about his alleged influence-peddling. Yet his close relationship to the president was readily apparent to most observers. “Every once in a while he shakes his head and exclaims, Alex is destined to be a very distinguished man,” Julia penned. Tyler even floated the idea of Gardiner running for Congress, while Julia thought her brother better suited to be a diplomat. [4]

Unsurprisingly, the ambitious Gardiner soon set his sights on Federal patronage. He thought the post of U.S. consul at Liverpool, England to be “highly agreeable if I could get it,” but conceded that he would accept an appointment to the Navy Agency, “though it is scarcely of a caste to which I should aspire.” However, if he were to remain in New York, Gardiner wrote Julia, the Navy Agency would be “as good as any [office] here excepting the Clerkship of the U.S. Circuit Court.” [5] His suggestion did not go unheeded. Four months later, on April 11, 1845, Gardiner found himself “duly appointed by the Court” as clerk, a post that entailed a maximum yearly salary of $2,500. “Tomorrow I shall set about acquiring a practical knowledge of the duties,” Gardiner wrote in a lengthy epistle to Julia, “and next week probably enter upon the discharge of the office.” [6]

Yet as Gardiner settled in to his new duties, the New York Evening Post questioned the circumstances surrounding his elevation to the clerkship. “Alexander Gardiner is the brother-in-law of Mr. Tyler,” the paper reminded readers, noting that Gardiner’s appointment came at the hands of Justice Samuel Nelson, who had just been appointed by President Tyler in February 1845. While doubting that “a man of the elevated character of Judge Nelson would enter into any understanding with Mr. Tyler to provide for his relatives as a condition to his appointment,” the Evening Post speculated that Tyler and his allies had made Nelson “unconsciously… the instrument of fulfilling such a condition.” The appointment, the paper concluded, “is one of those things which we are sorry to see, but which harmonizes very well with the rest of Mr. Tyler’s conduct.” [7] In addition to his clerkship, sometime during 1845 Gardiner was appointed to (or assumed) the office of U.S. Commissioner. He would occupy both posts simultaneously until his sudden death six years later. [8]

Gardiner’s letters from 1845-1850 are replete with insights into the duties and daily routine of a U.S. Circuit Court officer in the antebellum period. While newspaper notices record the types of cases which came before Gardiner in his official capacity as U.S. Commissioner–ranging from a man who was charged with “opening a letter, and abstracting therefrom its contents,” to a hearing involving 12 African American sailors who were accused of “attempting to create a revolt”–Gardiner’s personal correspondence reveals how he negotiated the heavy, though infrequent workload that his new posts entailed. In July 1845, just months into his duties, Gardiner wrote of being “so constantly engaged in my business, that I have scarcely found any relaxation.” His life was dominated by brief periods of intense activity, punctuated by lengthy intervals when the court was not in session. “The next term of the Court will commence in about three weeks, and continue two or three months,” Gardiner wrote in 1848, “so that I am near a season of pretty active employment.”  [9]

While historians have overlooked Gardiner’s close relationship to John Tyler, the former president’s views undoubtedly influenced Gardiner’s own outlook on the contentious 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. In February 1850, shortly after the compromise measures were first unveiled for debate, the Virginia slaveholder wrote his brother-in-law a lengthy missive outlining his views on the sectional divide. “The slave-holding states are deeply and profoundly excited,” penned Tyler, “by the constant annoyance they have experienced and continue to experience, upon the slavery question.” The vaunted “compromises of the Constitution in regard to fugitives from labor,” had been “despised and trampled upon in some quarters” of the North, the Virginian seethed, as “every conceivable impediment is cast in the way” of slave owners attempting to reclaim their “property.” [10] His prominent brother-in-law’s admonitions about Southern frustrations–and their potential implications for disunion– could not have been too far adrift from Commissioner Gardiner’s mind, when just months later he found himself adjudicating the first case under the contentious new law. After Gardiner made headlines for his role in the rendition of alleged fugitive James Hamlet, Tyler signaled his approbation. “Your name is becoming quite familiar to the lips of men around us,” the former president noted admiringly in December 1850. Gardiner’s “promptitude in deciding the first case which arose under the fugitive slave law,” Tyler wrote to another relative, had “inspired the whole South with confidence.” Praising Gardiner’s enforcement of the law, in the waning days of 1850 Tyler predicted that calmer waters lay ahead. “I think matters are looking better for the country,” he wrote. “The quiet in Congress so far is producing strong hopes that the storm is over.” [11]

With the passage of the new Fugitive Slave Law, the fall of 1850 was a particularly hectic time for Gardiner. In his capacity as U.S. Commissioner, the 31-year-old heard the Hamlet Case in late September. Yet in his role as clerk of the Circuit Court, Gardiner was tasked with, among other administrative functions, drafting and sending out a flurry of appointments from the court in a bid to meet the new law’s demands for an increased number of U.S. Commissioners. “At present my business is very pressing,” Gardiner scribbled in a hasty October 23 note addressed to Julia, without delving into any details. [12] The day before, on October 22, Gardiner had dispatched one of the many new appointments to Samuel E. Johnson, a local judge from Kings County, New York. Johnson, however, not only refused the office of U.S. Commissioner, but authored a lengthy rebuttal addressed to Gardiner, which he also leaked to the press. Politely worded but barbed nonetheless, Johnson declined the commissionership, citing a “serious doubt of the constitutionality of such an appointment.” Moreover, he insisted, serving as a U.S. Commissioner could “conflict” with his duties as a county judge, especially if a writ of habeas corpus was brought before him on behalf of an alleged fugitive. A Vermont newspaper picked up the story, noting with glee that Johnson had declined the appointment from “Slave Catcher-General Alexander Gardiner.” [13]

Gardiner’s dual role as clerk and commissioner resurfaced during another fugitive case that unfolded in the city in December 1850. Attempting to thwart the rendition of alleged fugitive Henry Long, anti-slavery lawyers questioned the credentials of Charles Hall, the presiding commissioner in the case. Joseph L. White, one of the anti-slavery attorneys, alleged that Hall “holds his office, he believes, under an old rule of the Court, that the Clerk of the Court shall be a Commissioner, as also shall the Deputy Clerk appointed by him.” Yet under Section 1 of the new law, White argued, appointments were to come directly from the Circuit Court itself. Hall was Gardiner’s deputy clerk, White observed, “and has not received his appointment from the Court,” which meant that he was “not a Commissioner under the law of 1850.” New York’s contingent of anti-slavery activists fumed that Hall, who reportedly “had resided in the city but two weeks, as clerk to Commissioner Gardiner,” was assuming the authority of a U.S. Commissioner. White’s narrow and shaky legal argument was enough to stymie the hearing, until a marshal reappeared “bearing a certificate of Mr. Gardiner, Clerk of the United States Circuit Court, that Mr. Hall is a Commissioner of said Court.” Yet when the marshal handed the certificate to White, the anti-slavery lawyer observed that the “seals were still wet,” exclaiming that the certificate was hastily produced “for the occasion.” [14] Despite the protests of White and others, Long was remanded to slavery.

As a whole, Gardiner’s correspondence offers crucial insight into the daily activities of U.S. Circuit Court officers, while also revealing the young lawyer’s close ties to his noted brother-in-law. Scholars of the 1850 law, as well as the small coterie of Tyler biographers, have neglected their relationship and its significance for both men’s views on the 1850 statute. [15] Writing from his Virginia home in February 1851, Tyler poured out his private grief onto paper. “To me he was almost every thing in connexion with my worldly affairs,” the ex-president mourned, intimating that Gardiner was in the process of crafting his memoirs to “put history right in regard to me.” Yet beyond the “great loss” Tyler felt personally, he regarded Gardiner’s sudden death as a “public calamity,” citing his “promptitude” in enforcing the 1850 law. [16]


[1] “Death of Mr. Commissioner Gardiner,” New York Herald, January 23, 1851.

[2] Curtiss C. Gardiner (ed.), Lion Gardiner, and His Descendants, 1599-1890 (St. Louis: A. Whipple, 1890), 149, [WEB]; Also see Molly McClain, “David Lion Gardiner: A Yankee in Gold Rush California, 1849-1851,” The Journal of San Diego History 62:3-4 (Summer/Fall 2015): 131-158, [WEB].

[3] Alexander Gardiner to My Dear Brother, undated [1844], Series IV, Box 14, Folder 368, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Family Papers,  Archives, Yale University.

[4] Julia Gardiner Tyler to Dear Alexander, December 8, 1844, Series IV, Box 14, Folder 360, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Family Papers, Yale University; Howard Gotlieb and Gail Grimes, “President Tyler and the Gardiners: A New Portrait,” The Yale University Library Gazette 34:1 (July 1959): 3-5.

[5] Alexander Gardiner to My Dear Sister, January 8, 1845, Series II, Box 6, Folder 193, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Papers, Yale University.

[6] Alexander Gardiner to My Dear Sister, April 11, 1845,  Series II, Box 6, Folder 193, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Papers, Yale University.

[7] “Appointment in the United States Circuit Court,” New York Evening Post, April 15, 1845; “Appointed Clerk,” Baltimore Daily Commercial, April 16, 1845.

[8] Gardiner was mentioned in his capacity as U.S. Commissioner in February 1846, but obituaries at the time of his 1851 death stated that he had held the commissionership since 1845. See “The Indiana Rubber Case–to Manufacturers,” New York Tribune, February 27, 1846; “Death of Mr. Commissioner Gardiner,” New York Herald, January 23, 1851.

[9] “United States Commissioner’s Office,” New York Herald, January 26, 1849; “United States Commissioner’s Office,” New York Herald, April 13, 1849; Alexander Gardiner to My Dear Sister, July 9, 1845, Gardiner to unidentified correspondent, [1848], Series II, Box 6, Folder 193, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Papers, Yale University.

[10] John Tyler to Alexander Gardiner, February 4, 1850, Tyler Family Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary, [WEB].

[11] Tyler to Gardiner, December 27, 1850, Tyler Family Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary, [WEB]; Tyler to David L. Gardiner, February 12, 1851, Tyler Family Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary, [WEB].

[12] Alexander Gardiner to Sister, October 23, 1850, Series II, Box 6, Folder 193, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Family Papers, Yale University.

[13] Samuel E. Johnson to Alexander Gardiner, October 26, 1850, Series 4, Box 14, Folder 363, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Family Papers, Yale University; “Declines the Honor,” Burlington, VT Courier, November 14, 1850; Johnson’s letter was published the same day, in “Another Refusal of the Appointment of United States Commissioner,” New York Evening Post, October 26, 1850.

[14] “Alleged Slave Case,” New York Tribune, December 28, 1850; Annual Report of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Presented at New-York, May 6, 1851 (New York: William Harned, 1851), 26, [WEB].

[15] See Edward P. Crapol, John Tyler: The Accidental President (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Gary May, John Tyler (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008).

[16] Tyler to David L. Gardiner, February 12, 1851, Tyler Family Papers, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary, [WEB].

Postwar Memoirs by Commissioners

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.

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