1850 Fugitive Slave Law

By Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

Writing Chapter 1

As I write Chapter 1, I will need to work on driving home the main historiographical insight of the chapter–that while  scholars often look to the latter part of the 1850s to explain the law’s failures, the story of the attempted federal expansion, beginning in September 1850, reveals crucial insights about the law and its limitations that would shape the contest over its enforcement for the rest of the decade. This chapter highlights the struggle over appointing additional U.S. commissioners, showcasing how the absence or ineffectiveness of these federal officers plagued the law’s operations from the outset. In doing so, I will of course need to address resistance–explaining how African American-led vigilance committees disrupted the law’s operations from the very beginning. Namely, I need to find the right balance when synthesizing the recent scholarship on resistance, such as the work of Richard Blackett, Robert Churchill, Stanley Harrold and Kellie Carter-Jackson. While I have an abundance of material on the ramifications of that pressure–from resignations of incumbent commissioners to prospective appointees getting cold feet and backing out–these new primary sources might not resonate with readers as much if the campaign of resistance is not well-defined. At present, I am mulling adding something along the lines of a historiographical paragraph summarizing how the recent scholarly literature has unearthed new insights about the resistance to the law and the pressure which helped disrupt the law’s enforcement apparatus.

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.

OVERARCHING THESIS:

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.

Presentation Gallery

U.S. Commissioner cartoon

Detail from “Practical Illustration of the Fugitive Slave Law,” 1851 (House Divided Project)

 

Hamlet Rendition 1850

(New York Atlas, October 20, 1850)

 

Mason standing

Virginia senator James Mason (House Divided Project)

 

Meeker photo

George W. Meeker (Chicago History Museum)

 

Bross engraving

John A. Bross (Memorial, 1865)

Presentation Preparation

Having put the finishing touches on the Introduction and Chapter 1 of my Honors Thesis, I’ll now need to focus my efforts on next week’s presentation before the History Department. In particular, I’ll be working on synthesizing my findings into a concise and effective presentation format. Discussing the Introduction, which sketches out the trajectory of the entire thesis and its central arguments, will be crucial to showing Department members the intended path of this thesis project. Accordingly, I’ll likely weight the presentation towards the material in the Introduction, with a smaller but still substantive portion devoted to the Chapter 1 and the historiographical evolution of commissioners.

I’ll also be searching for relevant images that can help enliven the presentation and maintain the interest of my audience. The contemporary cartoons I wrote about in another post will almost certainly find their way into my powerpoint presentation, while  images of individuals who are featured in the Introduction and Chapter 1, such as the law’s principal author, Virginia senator James Mason, and commissioners Levi Davis and George W. Meeker, could also make useful additions.

Introduction Editing

Over the past several days, I have been revising and tweaking my Introduction. Although it will likely round out to between 12-13 pages, it is a crucial part of my thesis–introducing readers to the arguments I will refine and expand upon in the three main content chapters. Per Professor Pinsker’s advice, I will also be adding an additional paragraph that will provide an overview of the recent historiographical trends, gesturing towards Chapter 1 as well as showing readers how my work is building on existing scholarship.

Historiographical Writing

As I put the finishing touches on the first half of Chapter 1, which traces the evolving legacy of U.S. Commissioners in the post-war period, I’m turning my full attention to incorporating recent scholarly developments to complete the latter half of the chapter. In particular, this means incorporating the work of Stanley Campbell and Richard Blackett, the scholars whose arguments are most relevant to U.S. Commissioners and my focus on the 1850 law’s enforcement. However, in demonstrating the recent shift away from Campbell’s signature thesis of faithful enforcement, detailed in another post, it also seems increasingly necessary to grapple (however briefly) with the related work of scholars such as Stanley Harrold and Robert Churchill. Discussing their scholarship, which has largely eroded the pillars of Campbell’s argument by showcasing the breadth and ubiquity of Northern resistance to slave catching along the North-South border, could be crucial to situating my own work in a recent scholarly trend that has emphasized the power of anti-slavery violence.

Chapter 1: Drafting the Historiography Section

This weekend, I finished an initial draft of my introduction. For the time being, I will refocus my efforts on completing a draft of Chapter 1, my historiography chapter.

As I have already written the section regarding post-war views of commissioners, my next task will be to connect their evolving legacy in the late 19th century to strands of scholarship. Considering that the first major academic work on the Underground Railroad, authored by Wilbur Siebert, was contemporaneous to many of these laudatory accounts, this may be the best conduit into the latter portion of my first chapter. Notions of legal formalism, which portrayed judicial officers as passive actors, may account for the conspicuous absence of commissioners from the initial scholarship on the Underground Railroad and the 1850 law. Elsewhere, I will also need to work to incorporate the influential work of Stanley Campbell and later Richard Blackett.

Introduction: Progress Report

The introduction is a crucial component of my thesis, not only providing important background and contextual information that will inform the ensuing chapters, but laying out my key arguments. Professor Pinsker suggested that I approach the introduction in the style of an annotated law, which fits well with the thematically structured chapters of my thesis. Accordingly, I am working on developing concise and coherent descriptions of my chapters, while highlighting  the historiographical arguments and contributions I am attempting to make.

In the meantime, I still need to find the most effective way to demonstrate commissioners’ notoriety, while being concise and staying within the parameters of a 10-page introduction.

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