This Honors Thesis will examine the enforcement of the law through a study of U.S. Commissioners, spanning 1850-1854. Chapters will be structured thematically within that time period.
Honors Prospectus – Submitted in May 2019, approved by the History Department in June 2019
Introduction – U.S. Commissioners and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
Chapter 1 – The Geography of Enforcement: U.S. Commissioners
The federal enforcement mechanism outlined in the law hinged upon a dramatic expansion of federal power, to be enacted through the appointment of additional U.S. commissioners. This chapter explores the struggle over appointing commissioners, one that began during the law’s first days on the books.
Chapter 2 – “The Free Negroes and Fugitive Slaves Would Kill Us”: Arresting Runaways
As slaveholders or their agents journeyed north in pursuit of freedom seekers, they sought out U.S. Commissioners, who were empowered to issue warrants of arrest for the apprehension of alleged freedom seekers. The task of executing those warrants fell to U.S. Marshals and deputy marshals, as well as teams of deputies, specially appointed by commissioners as allowed under Section 5 of the 1850 law. Historians have not studied the mechanics of the arrest process in detail, especially how commissioners utilized Section 5 to employ scores of deputies, many of them temporary. This chapter will explore how slaveholders and commissioners implemented the law’s provision for the arrest of alleged freedom seekers.
Chapter 3 – “The Law Don’t Contemplate a Trial”: Due Process
Controversially, Section 6 of the 1850 law forbid any testimony from alleged freedom seekers. Yet some U.S. Commissioners allowed the accused to testify, for varying reasons. Likewise, while the statute made no provision that the accused would have the benefit of legal representation, anti-slavery lawyers routinely found their way into the hearing room. Moreover, commissioners had considerable leeway in determining what constituted “satisfactory proof” to establish the identity of the accused, a task complicated by the presence of anti-slavery attorneys, who regularly challenged the legitimacy of the documentation, or the veracity of its description. This chapter will examine how U.S. Commissioners and anti-slavery activists interacted in the hearing room, illuminating how commissioners’ practices (and deviations from the fine print of the statute) affected the law’s implementation.
Chapter 4 – From Notorious to Nameless: A Historiographic Survey – Submitted in November 2019
This chapter will survey postwar accounts of commissioners and their operations, including memoirs authored by former commissioners themselves, to show the evolving historical memory surrounding the law’s enforcers. After dissecting public memory, this chapter will explore historiographical treatments of commissioners from Wilbur Siebert’s 1898 study, through 20th century scholarship to the most recent historiographical innovations, led by Richard Blackett and Robert Churchill.