1850 Fugitive Slave Law

By Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

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].

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.

Postwar Accounts of Commissioners

In June 1864, with the repeal of the controversial Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the special powers imbued in U.S. Commissioners to handle fugitive cases were no more. Yet while the specific powers of the so-called “Fugitive Slave Commissioners” had vanished from the statute book, they remained present in popular memory. The post-Civil War period witnessed sporadic references to the bygone “Fugitive Slave Commissioners,” as well as a select number of detailed accounts written about individuals who held the controversial post.

Postwar accounts often commented on the office itself, as it existed under the 1850 law, augmented with special powers and final authority over the fate of fugitive slaves. In this vein, references to so-called “Fugitive Slave Commissioners” appeared intermittently in American serials during the decades following the war’s end. For instance, after Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, the statute’s opponents charged that the law granted U.S. Commissioners the same weighty powers over ex-Confederates and Southern whites as “the old Fugitive Slave Commissioners” had possessed over alleged fugitive slaves. While the 1866 statute replicated much of the language used in the 1850 statute, encouraging the hiring of additional commissioners “from time to time,” authorizing the appointment of deputies and outlining a $10 fee for commissioners, it shied away from vesting commissioners with such expansive powers. Rather, as one New York paper rebutted, “Commissioners under the Fugitive Slave law were judge and jury; those under the Civil Rights bill are merely committing magistrates.” [1]

References to “Fugitive Slave Commissioners” also appeared in the punch-lines of bawdy jokes. In 1867, a widely-reprinted anecdote mocking President Johnson made reference to a “fugitive slave commissioner” who arrogantly demanded a free black woman produce her husband, an alleged fugitive. “Well what do you think,” the bumbling commissioner was supposed to have said, “the next day I went down again, and couldn’t find neither of ’em. That’s it. Just like these n—s. Can’t rely on ’em.” [2] Elsewhere, allusions to the office surfaced in more serious pieces highlighting the vast changes in American society since the outbreak of the Civil War. When a delegation of African American politicians from Reconstruction Louisiana visited in New York in August 1873, a correspondent for the New Orleans Republican was unable to suppress his sense of awe at the enormous changes which had transpired since 1860. “Had these same people assembled anywhere in this city, at that time, they would have been ‘constitutionally’ hunted by fugitive slave commissioners, United States marshals, and Mr. President Buchanan’s federal troops.” [3]

Yet the most revealing postwar accounts focused on individual commissioners. Obituaries of former commissioners frequently extolled these Federal officials for their fearless commitment to law and order, while taking pains to separate commissioners’ enactment of their official duties from any personal inclinations about slavery. The obituary of George Pendleton Johnston, who as U.S. Commissioner in San Francisco heard the 1858 case of a Mississippi fugitive named Archy, heaped praise on Johnston for his “resolute” implementation of the law. Although the Kentucky-born commissioner purportedly “believed in slavery,” and his “sentiments were Southern,” the evidence prompted him to release Archy, initiating swift backlash and “some social ostracism upon the side of those who were of strong Southern sentiment.” The moral, according to this laudatory obituary, was that Johnston had performed the duties of commissioner with “manliness, courage and dignity,” emerging from this “severe and trying ordeal” with his conscience and principles intact. [4] Ten years later, a Chicago paper churned out an obituary of Commissioner Philip A. Hoyne, once again separating the commissioner’s official duties from his feelings towards slavery. While Hoyne “was not in sympathy with slavery,” he nonetheless proceeded with the duties of his post, albeit “with a feeling of repugnance.” [5]

While most obituaries sang the praises of former commissioners in generic terms, the 1897 death of former Alton, Illinois commissioner Levi Davis prompted two particularly descriptive recollections about his tenure. Within days of his passing, a group of Davis’s friends and colleagues eulogized the commissioner as a man of sterling anti-slavery credentials, despite his January 1853 decision that an alleged fugitive, Amanda Chavers, be remanded to slavery. Davis, his friends and colleagues explained, “was himself at heart an abolitionist, but he knew that when acting officially he was the mere agent of the law.” Even as “every impulse of his nature revolved,” and his “friends importuned him and a mob threatened him in behalf of the fugitive,” Davis was steadfast, refusing to deviate from the evidence clearly laid out before him by the claimant. However, when it came time to read his decision, Davis allegedly delivered a stirring anti-slavery invective to the packed hearing room, giving “indignant expression to his abhorrence of slavery, and his detestation of laws that deprived human beings of God-given rights.” Then, according to the recollection, Davis bellowed out that he could “no longer hold an office under a government which compelled men to do violence to their consciences for such base purposes as the enforcement of the fugitive slave law,” and immediately resigned. Davis, they maintained, was a man of high character whose life was guided by “honor and conscience,” setting aside his personal feelings to enforce the law when called upon in an official capacity. Moreover, they rationalized, Davis believed that “the higher law would prevail, and that submission to the law of the land until that should come to pass was even of higher importance than the extinction of slavery.” [6]

Levi Davis

Levi Davis (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

Barely two years later, a St. Louis paper published another detailed profile of Davis’s tenure as commissioner, under the provocative title, “An Illinois Martyr.” Davis, the unidentified writer asserted, was himself a “victim of the slave power,” evidence of the slave system’s corrupting ability to “make instruments of tyranny of conscientious men serving as… officers [of the law].” An aspiring politician with a bright future ahead of him, Davis was stupefied when the case of Amanda Chavers was brought before him–especially considering that her husband, Alfred Chavers, was his longtime barber. Purportedly spellbound, Davis “listened as one in a dream” as the well-prepared claimant, Malcom McCullon, presented the requisite evidence. When Chavers was brought before Davis, she reportedly broke down into tears and “admitted all,” asking “the protection of the Commissioner.” While Davis, according to the account, briefly considered citing an Illinois law declaring free any slaves brought voluntarily by their owners into the state, “his legal mind at once told him” that this statute “could not, even by the most forced interpretation, be invoked to protect” Chavers. When the claimants asserted their right to remove Chavers immediately, Davis demurred, scheduling a hearing for the next day, purportedly “hoping that some new evidence might be developed, or some legal way out of the difficulty be found.” [7]

Well past midnight on January 17, Alton’s anti-slavery activists crowded into Davis’s home, alternatively arguing, “pleading” and even “threatening” the commissioner, intimating that he would meet his “political death” should he remand Chavers. At 11 a.m. the following day, a crowd was “packed to the door” of the commissioner’s rarely-occupied “little office,” as the hearing proceeded. Davis, the account reported, delivered his ruling, “pale, but with a firm voice,” explaining his decision to remand Chavers, and then declaring: “And here and now I resign the only office I have ever held, or ever expect to hold, under such an infamous government as this.” This richly detailed account portrayed Davis as a victim and “martyr,” who suffered severe political consequences on account of his “sense of official duty” and fealty to the rule of law. Abolitionists, the author claimed, held a lasting grudge against Davis, thwarting his ambitions for public office, a coordinated ostracism that allegedly swayed Abraham Lincoln against appointing Davis to a post in his administration. [8]

While postwar accounts, when they appeared, largely extolled commissioners as fierce defenders of law and order, during this same period at least two commissioners authored their own memoirs, which will be explored in a future post.


[1] “Similitude by Contrast,” Brooklyn Union, March 29, 1866.

[2] New York Tribune, quoted in “Misplaced Confidence,” Raleigh, NC Weekly Progress, August 15, 1867.

[3] “Letter from New York,” New Orleans Republican, August 31, 1873.

[4] “A Noble Man Gone,” San Francisco Examiner, March 5, 1884.

[5] “Philip A. Hoyne Dead,” Chicago Inter-Ocean, November 4, 1894.

[6] “Touching Tributes,” Edwardsville, IL Intelligencer, March 16, 1897.

[7] “An Illinois Martyr,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 8, 1899; also see, Nathaniel B. Curran, “Levi Davis, Illinois’ Third Auditor,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 71:1 (February 1978): 2-12; The authorship of this 1899 account remains unclear, but the writer appears to have detailed knowledge of the case and hearing room, and even Commissioner Davis’s mindset. It is likely that the author of this piece, published two years after Davis’s death, was a close friend or associate of the commissioner.

[8] “An Illinois Martyr,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 8, 1899.

Historiography: Paul Finkelman’s “The Appeasement of 1850” (2012)

A noted legal historian, Paul Finkelman has authored numerous works examining slavery and the U.S. legal system, from the Constitutional Convention through the Civil War Era. While his bibliography is extensive and varied, several of Finkelman’s publications, explored here, yield important insights in terms of this project. Although not directly addressing the 1850 law or fugitive slave cases, Finkelman’s tome An Imperfect Union (1981) details the breakdown of comity between free and slaveholding states that materialized throughout the early to mid-19th century, amounting to what he terms a “judicial and legislative war” that fueled the growing sectional animus. [1] Finkelman is also the editor of the 16-volume series Slavery, Race and the American Legal System, 1780-1872 (1988), reproducing texts of pivotal slavery-related legal cases. The four volumes of Series II, “Fugitive Slaves and American Courts,” will undoubtedly prove useful when examining fugitive cases under the 1850 law. [2]

Throughout his scholarship, Finkelman has repeatedly scrutinized the central thesis of Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970). While Campbell famously claimed that the 1850 law was faithfully enforced, and the vast majority of the Northern public proved acquiescent to the controversial statute, Finkelman concludes that Campbell has “overstated” the extent of Northern support for the law. [3] In a similar vein, Finkelman suggests that scholars have largely exaggerated the extent of Northern racism and its impact on the enforcement of both the 1793 and 1850 Federal fugitive slave laws. Anticipating the subsequent work of Stanley Harrold and Robert Churchill, who both emphasize the anti-slavery convictions of border state residents, Finkelman’s article, “Fugitive Slaves, Midwestern Racial Tolerance, and the Value of ‘Justice Delayed'” (1992) argues that although many Northerners were far from embracing notions of racial equality, “even mildly antislavery attitudes led to new protections and rights for free blacks.” Detailing one fugitive case which unfolded in September 1849, Finkelman observes that a family of four alleged fugitives––Lucy Powell and her three sons––were abruptly seized from their home in Cassopolis, Michigan, by Kentucky slaveholder John Norris and nine fellow Kentuckians. Yet as legal proceedings played out in South Bend, Indiana (still under the 1793 law), a biracial group of 200 armed Michiganders descended upon South Bend, and with support from the city’s white community, intimidated Norris into relinquishing his claim. Although Norris would later file suits against Indiana residents who interfered with his property rights as a slaveholder, Finkelman notes that the community’s aggressive stances against the slave catching posse “were hardly the actions of racists.” [4]

The case of the Powell family bore a striking resemblance to the June 1848 escape of nine enslaved men and women from the Missouri farm of Ruel Daggs, where residents of Salem, Iowa presented a unified front against a group of Missourians tasked with recapturing the fugitives, enabling the successful escape of five individuals. Like Norris, Daggs also brought a suit against Salem residents accused of aiding the fugitives under the 1793 law. These cases demonstrate, Finkelman argues, that residents of both midwestern communities “believed that even black strangers were entitled to a due process hearing, and that they had the right to be free unless those claiming them as slaves could produce evidence of their servitude.” [5] Although Finkelman’s focus in this article remains on cases adjudicated under the 1793 statute, his assertion that violent recaption efforts by slaveholders were anathema to white Northerners’ views of justice complements Robert Churchill’s concept of a deep-rooted “collision of cultures” that extended into the 1850s and beyond.

Yet Finkelman’s most direct contribution to the historiography of the 1850 law comes in his pointedly titled essay, “The Appeasement of 1850,” which appeared in a volume he co-edited, Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s (2012). Contesting earlier “heroic” portrayals of the much-vaunted Compromise of 1850, Finkelman refers to the package of five bills ushered through Congress as an “appeasement,” that was “overwhelmingly favorable to the South, while giving the North almost nothing of value.” The most blatantly pro-Southern element of this “appeasement,” Finkelman writes, was the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which was “so unfair, so one-sided, so outrageous, that it could not possibly work.” Drawing on his earlier arguments about white Northerners’ sense of justice, Finkelman notes that the law’s “absurdly unfair provisions and its failure to protect free blacks from kidnapping” alienated a substantial number of white Northerners. Moreover, he writes, the law’s propensity to ensnare alleged fugitives who had lived for years as respected members of Northern communities deeply perturbed many Northerners. [6]

Finkelman discusses the Federal government’s efforts to enforce the contentious statute, but primarily through the lens of high-ranking officials, such as President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Fillmore, he argues, was not troubled by any scruples of conscience, but rather a vehement supporter of the law, whose fixation with its successful enforcement bordered on “obsession.” Fillmore’s aggressive approach stemmed in part from his need to court Southern support for the 1852 Whig nomination, a motive shared by his elderly, though intensely ambitious secretary of state. Even as both men angled for the presidential nod,  the two “teamed up to aggressively enforce” the law, with Fillmore most notably urging the prosecution of 40-plus citizens for treason in the aftermath of the Christian Riot. While Finkelman notes that both Fillmore and Webster “personally intervened with local U.S. attorneys to help secure convictions of opponents of the law,” he does not discuss what role, if any, the two men played in arranging the appointment of commissioners. Yet Finkelman shows how Northern resistance to the law was sufficient “to embarrass every administration for the rest of the decade,” while confirming Southerners’ worst suspicions that “nowhere in the North could they expect to vindicate their claims to fugitive slaves.” [7]


[1] Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 8-11.

[2] Paul Finkelman (ed.), Slavery, Race and the American Legal System, 1700-1872 (New York: Garland, 1988), 16 vols.

[3] Paul Finkelman, “The Kidnapping of John Davis and the Adoption of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793,” The Journal of Southern History 56:3 (August 1990): 410.

[4] Paul Finkelman, “Fugitive Slaves, Midwestern Racial Tolerance, and the Value of ‘Justice Delayed,'” Iowa Law Review 78:1 (October 1992): 89-142; also see Paul Finkelman, “John Bingham and the Background to the Fourteenth Amendment,” Akron Law Review 36:4 (2003): 671-692.

[5] Finkelman, “Fugitive Slaves, Midwestern Racial Tolerance, and the Value of ‘Justice Delayed,'” 92-95.

[6] Paul Finkelman, “The Appeasement of 1850,” in Paul Finkelman (ed.), Congress and the Crisis of the 1850s (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012), 50, 73-79.

[7] Finkelman, “The Appeasement of 1850,” 73-79.

Historiography: Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018)

Building on recent Underground Railroad scholarship that has emphasized the agency of enslaved men and women, Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018) provides the most authoritative treatment to date on the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Blackett argues that fugitive slaves themselves precipitated the intense struggle over the law, through continuing to escape and defy the coterie of Federal officials and slaveholders intent on returning them to bondage. No law would have been necessary in the first place, Blackett tellingly observes, had enslaved men and women not pushed the boundaries of the slave system by taking flight. Their unflagging resistance drew considerable attention to the law, enraging its supporters while forcing previously ambivalent white Northerners to reconsider their own complicity in upholding the institution of slavery. [1]

While Stanley Campbell’s widely cited tome, The Slave Catchers (1970), claimed that resistance to the law was confined to well-known anti-slavery enclaves, Blackett’s work reveals new insights about the the pressures which freedom seekers and anti-slavery activists brought to bear upon the law’s enforcers. African American communities in particular proved a constant thorn in the sides of commissioners, Blackett demonstrates, spearheading opposition to the law on the ground in Northern cities and towns. Along with their white anti-slavery allies, free blacks made their presence felt, squeezing into packed hearing rooms, or gathering in force outside, prepared to resort to extralegal means if a commissioner handed down an unfavorable ruling. [2]

Placing fugitive slaves and free black activists squarely at the center of the struggle over the law, Blackett foregrounds the numerous rescue attempts, both successful and botched, which rocked the law’s enforcement throughout the decade. While Campbell largely dismisses the slue of attempted rescues as “occasional outbursts,” Blackett contends that these overt defiances of Federal authority–even when unsuccessful–proved crucial to the law’s ultimate undoing. [3] In April 1851, as Boston commissioner George T. Curtis heard the case of alleged runaway Thomas Sims, apprehensive Federal authorities called in a sizable contingent of soldiers to lay down the law. While the show of force snuffed out any hopes of rescuing Sims, it proved an expensive victory for the Federal government, with the total costs for remanding a single fugitive reportedly ranging between $10,000-20,000. The unceasing campaign of resistance waged by free African Americans, Blackett argues, “pushed the system to overreact and employ increasingly draconian methods.” These “draconian methods”—ranging from predawn hearings to costly armed escorts—ended up backfiring. The appearance of “heavy handedness” on the part of the Federal government to appease slaveholders, he maintains, ultimately “alienated” increasing numbers of white Northerners. [4]

Between exerting pressure on commissioners and forcible rescue attempts, Blackett argues that the spirited efforts of anti-slavery activists ultimately took a heavy toll on the law’s effectiveness. In the face of fierce anti-slavery resistance, Circuit Court judges, tasked with appointing commissioners, struggled to find willing applicants. Few cases epitomized the hazards of the post better than that of John Moore, an elderly Democrat who was goaded into accepting a commissionership in Vincennes, Indiana. Yet when Commissioner Moore remanded an alleged fugitive named George Givens in June 1854, he was promptly indicted for kidnapping by a local grand jury. While Indiana Democrats frantically sought assistance from the Pierce administration in Washington, Moore struggled to meet his legal bills. Although the case against him was eventually dropped, Moore became yet another cautionary tale of what was in store for prospective commissioners. Anti-slavery resistance intimidated many potential appointees, leaving “large swaths” of the North without any commissioner, Blackett observes, severely crippling efforts to enforce the controversial law. [5]

Blackett concludes his study with a poignant and revealing episode from the early winter months of 1861. As the secession crisis engulfed the nation, a Virginia slaveholder trudged north to Cleveland, Ohio, determined to reclaim an escaped slave, 28-year-old Sarah Lucy Bagby. The case, heard by Commissioner Bushnell C. White, took on new significance as the struggle over slavery threatened to tear the nation apart. Moderate white Northerners, desperate to demonstrate their commitment to the Union, ultimately prevailed over Cleveland’s robust contingent of anti-slavery activists. Yet while some white Northerners showcased their willingness to compromise, Blackett observes, “the enslaved cared little about saving the Union.” In their persistent defiance of the Federal statute, freedom seekers, along with free African Americans throughout the North, “managed to undermine the law and bring the country to a moment of reckoning.” [6]

In assessing the law’s effectiveness, Blackett’s work further complicates the central thesis of Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970). In his influential study, Campbell argues that the 1850 statute was faithfully enforced, grounding his claim on the statistic that 82.2% of alleged fugitives brought before commissioners were returned. While Blackett agrees with Campbell’s figures, he actually expands upon the number of cases identified by Campbell––though he only provides statistics for the first 15 months of the law’s operation, from September 1850-December 1851. During those tumultuous 15 months, Campbell pinpointed the number of cases at 110, while Blackett’s count is significantly higher, at 147. Importantly, Blackett’s count incorporates successful escapes and rescues from Federal custody, along with alleged fugitives who were remanded, but later purchased  and manumitted by anti-slavery activists, offering a more holistic picture of how the law’s enforcement proceeded in the face of anti-slavery resistance. Accordingly, Blackett breaks down this figure into 45 instances of recaption without a hearing; 53 renditions after a hearing; 16 successful escapes; 17 individuals rescued from Federal custody; seven who were remanded but purchased and restored to freedom; another seven who were released by commissioners; and finally two individuals who were purchased before they could be remanded. While he does not offer similarly detailed statistics for the entire decade, Blackett argues that the number of successful renditions pales in comparison to the many more freedom seekers who managed to elude authorities. On top of that, sensational escapes garnered more press than instances where the law was successfully enforced. As a result, Blackett writes, “it is not surprising that Southerners considered the law ineffective.” [7]

Crucially, Blackett distinguishes between the law’s operations as a whole and the actions of individual Federal officers. While he argues that anti-slavery resistance caused the Circuit Courts to fall significantly shy of their quota for commissioners, impeding the law’s operations overall, Blackett claims that most appointments after September 1850 were “based on political considerations” and the understanding that the appointee would be friendly to the law’s enforcement. Breaking from Stanley Harrold’s depiction of commissioners who were ambivalent, if not openly hostile to the law’s implementation, Blackett suggests that most commissioners who accepted appointments under the statute were willing enforcers. Yet he emphasizes that the law’s first months on the books were clouded by unanswered questions about the extent of commissioners’ powers. As a result, “many flew by the seat of their pants,” discovering ad hoc ways to “put their own stamp on the law” and “interpret its clauses in ways they thought best guaranteed its enforcement.” [8]

Although his focus remains on the agency of freedom seekers and free African American activists, Blackett describes numerous hearings under the law, and in the process identifies 21 commissioners. The most vexing part of the law for commissioners, according to Blackett, was the provision in Section 10 outlining how slaveholders should obtain an affidavit describing the alleged fugitive. In their efforts to thwart the law, anti-slavery lawyers routinely objected to claimants’ affidavits, and many fugitive cases ultimately hinged on the legitimacy of the affidavit, or the accuracy of its description. Yet pushing aside these “stumbling blocks,” Blackett stresses that commissioners possessed and frequently invoked their “untrammeled powers” to squash any resistance efforts. [9]

Yet despite the wide latitude and expansive new powers afforded them under the law, Blackett also demonstrates that commissioners were not immune from the turbulent forces swirling outside their hearing rooms. Only “constant public protests and pressure from the black community and their abolitionist allies” could give commissioners pause, and perhaps thwart renditions, he maintains. Before the ink on the bill was even dry, anti-slavery activists were vowing to do just that, threatening to ostracize anyone who accepted a commissionership. Those who took up the post often faced social and even financial consequences, which Blackett briefly explores. After remanding Anthony Burns to slavery in 1854, Boston’s Edward Loring was dropped from the faculty of Harvard Law School. Likewise, following a number of successful renditions in 1850-1852, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania commissioner Richard McAllister encountered social pressure from within his own church and was forced to step down.  [10]

While The Captive’s Quest for Freedom explores how the law worked through the lens of fugitive slaves and anti-slavery activists, this thesis project seeks to illuminate new insights about the law’s operations through a study of its enforcers. Although Blackett briefly gestures to individual commissioners imprinting “their own stamp” on the law, his focus on resistance precludes a more exhaustive examination of commissioners’ practices in the hearing rooms. Moving forward, Blackett’s landmark study will provide crucial context about the nature of anti-slavery resistance and its ramifications for the law’s enforcement.


[1] Richard J.M. 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), xi, 460.

[2] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 56-59, 459.

[3] Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 61; see post.

[4] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 67-69, 421-427, 459.

[5] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 56-64, 69-70.

[6] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 441-444, 459-460.

[7] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 69-70, 458-459.

[8] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 52-64.

[9] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 59-61.

[10] Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom, 64, 285-291, 432-436.

Historiography: Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970)

My previous two research journal posts explored the recent work of Stanley Harrold and Robert Churchill, both of whom contest the conclusions of one particularly influential volume–Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970). Until recently, Campbell’s monograph had largely dominated the historiographical landscape surrounding the 1850 law, with its central thesis that the controversial statute was faithfully enforced by Federal officials. Situating Campbell’s work within the broader historiography will be crucial as I move forward with my own thesis project.

Campbell contests the notion that the law was never meaningfully implemented, suggesting that scholars have overstated the extent of the Northern public’s backlash to the law. While many Northerners expressed their disdain for the controversial statute, Campbell attempts to separate rhetoric from “active” opposition. Although slavery was anathema to most Northerners, “only a few citizens in isolated communities engaged in active opposition” to the statute, he claims. Consistent opposition to the statute, according to Campbell, emanated exclusively from “certain minority groups” (abolitionists) who were concentrated in a select few “geographic areas”–such as upstate New York, Ohio’s Western Reserve and the immediate environs of Boston. Meanwhile, the vast majority of white Northerners, he argues, placed the preservation of the Union ahead of any anti-slavery inclinations. Campbell goes so far as to claim that by mid-1851, which he notes as the law’s most effective year on the books, the “tide had turned” against abolitionist “radicalism,” a force “which threatened to tear the nation asunder,” as white Northerners overwhelmingly sided with the law and supported the compromise measures, albeit oftentimes reluctantly. [1]

Dividing the law’s enforcement into two periods, Campbell characterizes the first period (spanning from 1850-1854) as a time when prevailing Northern attitudes towards the law were “ambiguous” but “on the whole acquiescent.” While acknowledging “occasional outbursts”–such as the October 1851 rescue of Jerry McHenry from a commissioner’s office in Syracuse, New York–Campbell maintains that for the most part, the law’s enforcement proceeded “quietly and without fanfare,” through both renditions (by a commissioner) and instances of recaption (fugitives seized and returned “without process” by a slaveholder). Opposition to the law intensified in 1854, which Campbell attributes to two near-simultaneous events: the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the rendition of fugitive Anthony Burns from Boston. Anti-slavery activists “exploited” these events, he claims, to cultivate public opinion against the law. Yet even during the second period of the law’s enforcement (from 1854-1860), Campbell maintains that the fiercest opposition was confined to well-known anti-slavery enclaves in the Upper North. [2]

Campbell goes on to doubt the effectiveness of the spate of so-called Personal Liberty Laws, measures passed by Northern states that were designed to hinder and obstruct Southern slaveholders’ attempts to recapture fugitives on Northern soil. Campbell boldly claims that these statutes, a source of continual complaint from Southerners, were more “propaganda” than reality, asserting that they “did not prevent even one slave from being returned to the South where the claim was legitimate.” Yet while dismissing the statutes themselves, Campbell takes note of the shaky relationship between state and Federal authorities. State governments turned a blind eye to abolitionists’ “harassment” of U.S. Commissioners, rendering enforcement of the controversial law “difficult” and oftentimes “expensive.” More than any concrete measure, Campbell asserts, it was “the propaganda spread by the abolitionist press” that deterred more slaveholders from journeying North in pursuit of their runaway slaves. [3]

In assessing the law’s effectiveness, Campbell departs from earlier scholars such as James Ford Rhodes and Allan Nevins, who suggested that public outrage rendered the law a “dead letter” in many Northern communities. Instead, Campbell argues that the 1850 law was faithfully enforced by U.S. Commissioners. In buttressing his central claim, Campbell touts the “efficiency” of U.S. Commissioners and the Federal Circuit Courts, culling statistics to show that in the “great majority” of cases which came before commissioners (82.2%), fugitives were remanded to the claimants. The volume’s central claim is grounded in a widely-cited appendix, detailing some 332 fugitive cases which occurred between 1850-1860. [4]

Yet Campbell distinguishes between faithful enforcement and overall effectiveness. He argues that the law was faithfully and “persistently” enforced by commissioners. When slaveholders made the trek north and sought out commissioners, Campbell claims, “most officers of the federal courts would go to almost any lengths to enforce the law.” Out of 191 fugitives who appeared before a U.S. Commissioner or Federal judge, Campbell finds that 157 were remanded (hence his 82.2% figure). However, he concedes that when compared to widely-accepted estimates that some 10,000 or more freedom seekers successfully escaped during the decade, the law returned “only a small percentage” of fugitives. Here Campbell stakes out his central claim–the law’s failure “cannot be attributed to [a] lack of enforcement,” but rather to the more abstract reality that slavery was a “dying institution in the western world,” coupled with the Northern public’s increasing anti-slavery sentiments. [5]

Despite his focus on enforcement–and the book’s title, The Slave Catchers–Campbell provides few details about these Federal officers themselves. Throughout the text, he mentions nine commissioners by name, but offers no biographical background (and in some cases does not even include the commissioner’s first name). The law’s chief enforcers are also absent from his appendix, which lists only the location and date of renditions. Likewise, in his chapter on the law’s enforcement, Campbell only cursorily refers to the actual hearings, often confining his descriptions to a single sentence. While he claims that commissioners faithfully executed the statute, this conclusion rests largely on the 82.2% rendition rate–he does not explore how commissioners actually went about implementing the law inside the hearing room. [6]

Although Campbell’s tome was published nearly 50 years ago, it remains widely influential. A cursory search on GoogleScholar reveals that the book has been cited some 252 times, and as Robert Churchill has recently observed, Campbell’s narrative of effective enforcement has profoundly shaped scholarly understandings of the sectional crisis–Campbell’s monograph is cited by a coterie of distinguished historians: David Potter, Michael Holt, Don Fehrenbacher and James McPherson. [7]

Yet in recent years, Campbell’s central claim has come under increasing scrutiny. Stanley Harrold’s Border War (2010) called into question Campbell’s portrayal of the Lower North as largely “acquiescent” to the 1850 law, by revealing the lengthy history of violent conflicts over slavery that raged along the North-South border. Likewise, Harrold paints a very different portrait of commissioners than Campbell, suggesting that these Federal officers were ambivalent, and at times even hostile to the law’s implementation. Building on Harrold’s work, Robert Churchill has broken new ground with his exploration of rescues and the cultures of violence that shaped the fugitive slave issue along the border region. Churchill argues that Campbell’s thesis “slights the determination of rural residents and of communities in the North to resist the recapture of their African American neighbors,” while also glorifying the Federal officers who supposedly “stood firm in the face of opposition from a minority of extremists.” Rather, as Churchill suggests, “it was the champions of the law who had become isolated by the late 1850s.” [8]

Nonetheless, The Slave Catchers will remain vital as I move forward with my own research. Specifically in terms of this thesis project, perhaps the most important takeaway is that Campbell’s claim about faithful enforcement is grounded in statistics, rather than a thorough analysis of commissioners’ practices in the hearing room. My work will endeavor to reveal how commissioners adjudicated the law in the hearing room, providing new insights into the mechanisms of enforcement and just how “faithfully” commissioners implemented the law’s provisions.


[1] Stanley Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 7, 44-54.

[2] Campbell, The Slave Catchers, 44, 61-62, 69, 75-77.

[3] Campbell, The Slave Catchers, 7, 72-73, 132-133.

[4] Campbell, The Slave Catchers, 7, 115, 132, 133.

[5] Campbell, The Slave Catchers, 133-134.

[6] Campbell, The Slave Catchers, 30-34, 101, 108, 153.

[7] Robert H. Churchill, “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North: Towards a Geography of Antislavery Violence,” Ohio Valley History 14:2 (Summer 2014): 73.

[8] Churchill, “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North,” 51-53.


Historiography: Robert Churchill’s “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North” (2014) and “When the Slave Catchers Came to Town” (2018)

Building on Stanley Harrold’s work in Border War (2010), Robert Churchill has further explored resistance to recaption efforts and renditions in two recent articles, “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North” (2014) and “When the Slave Catchers Came to Town” (2018). Churchill divides the regions Harrold refers to as the “Lower North” and “Upper North” into three separate and distinct zones–(1) the “borderlands,” the southerly 40-miles of a free state abutting a slave state; (2) the “contested region” to its north; and (3) finally the “free soil” region (what Harrold terms the “Upper North”), which has typically received the most scholarly attention. While slaveholders, “emboldened” by the 1850 law, initially sought to initiate a series of renditions in “free soil” abolitionist strongholds such as Boston and Syracuse, New York, Churchill argues that by the mid-1850s “the locus of resistance” shifted south to the “contested region.” [1]

While Harrold’s Border War demonstrated that slave catching was anathema to many residents in the Northern border states, Churchill expands upon his work, emphasizing the “collision of cultures” between slaveholders journeying northward in pursuit of escaped bondsmen and residents in the “contested region.” While many Northern residents were content to let the law play out, the violence which so often characterized slave catching forays proved “culturally alien and threatening.” As slaveholders attempted to reclaim fugitives under the new 1850 law, the tensions were only exacerbated. Churchill argues that before the decade was out, the vast majority of Northerners in the “contested region” had “embraced a culture of violence that treated slave catching in all of its forms as incompatible with their political and cultural identity.” In terms of this thesis project, Churchill identifies several overlooked cases unfolding in the “contested region” during the late 1850s, which he frames as crucial to understanding the law’s failure. In one case during 1860, a U.S. Commissioner from Camden, New Jersey (who is unnamed) personally led a group of deputies and slave catchers to seize alleged fugitive Perry Simmons, who was living near Moorestown, New Jersey. Yet blatantly defying the Federal officer’s authority, local residents joined together in force, prompting the commissioner and his party to beat a hasty retreat. Churchill only names one commissioner in his two articles (Boston’s Edward Loring), but refers to multiple enforcers. He notes, for instance, that as opposition to the law mounted in the late 1850s, renditions grew more infrequent–except in “a few localities,” such as Springfield, Illinois (where U.S. Commissioner Stephen A. Corneau operated). During the course of this project, Churchill’s insights on the “contested region” and his mounds of new data on rescue attempts will undoubtedly prove instrumental. [2]

Both Harrold’s tome and Churchill’s subsequent work focus on resistance to the law and the shifting geographical centers of that opposition. However, while both scholars shed new light on the efficacy and violent nature of resistance, they do not explore the law’s actual operations in depth. Moving forward, this should help me as I attempt to hone in the scope of my thesis. While a growing body of literature has yielded crucial new insights about the nature of resistance to the law, my task is to illuminate the mechanisms of enforcement, and demonstrate how commissioners, abolitionists and freedom seekers negotiated them in the hearing room.


[1] Robert H. Churchill, “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North: Towards a Geography of Antislavery Violence,” Ohio Valley History 14:2 (Summer 2014): 56-59, 62-63.

[2] Robert H. Churchill, “When the Slave Catchers Came to Town: Cultures of Violence along the Underground Railroad,” The Journal of American History 105:3 (December 2018): 514-518, 534-537.

Historiography: Stanley Harrold’s Border War (2010)

As noted in my previous research journal post, much of the Underground Railroad literature centers around well-known abolitionist enclaves, such as upstate New York, southeastern Pennsylvania or Ohio’s Western Reserve. Yet a recent addition to the historiography, Stanley Harrold’s Border War (2010) has refocused scholarly attention to the contentious border region.

Harrold disputes conventional characterizations of the border states as moderate and interconnected, noting that stark economic and cultural differences–centering around the institution of slavery–clearly delineated the divide between free and slave states. Recounting the lengthy history of violent confrontations over slavery that played out along the border, Harrold argues that the North-South line was central in the national struggle that ultimately led to civil war. While slaveholders clung to the right of recaption (a slaveholder’s right to recapture an escaped slave, even if he or she had escaped into a free state, a principle enshrined in the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the 1793 Federal fugitive slave law), many Northerners conflated recaption with kidnapping, and viewed the incursions of slave catching parties as undermining their state’s sovereignty. In what Harrold terms the “Lower North” (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa), resistance to slaveholders and their agents was relatively common, frequently escalating into bloody brawls that pitted free African Americans and white Northerners against Southern claimants. In response, irate Southerners demanded that Northerners respect their Constitutional right to recapture escaped slaves. Politicians, both in the Border South and Lower North, thundered forth threats of “war,” statements rooted, Harrold maintains, in the lengthy history of physical clashes that had created “warlike conditions” along the North-South divide. The slue of confrontations and retaliatory threats contributed to the widening political gulf, Harrold argues, further fueling slaveholders’ demands for a more stringent Federal fugitive slave law. It was no coincidence, he notes, that the 1850 bill’s principal author, Virginia senator James Mason, was himself a Border South slaveholder. [1]

It is hard to understand the ramifications of Harrold’s historiographical innovation without referring to another landmark work of scholarship, Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970). In his influential monograph, Campbell confines abolitionist resistance to a select number of anti-slavery strongholds in the Upper North, arguing that “only a few citizens in isolated communities engaged in active opposition” to the 1850 law. [2] As one scholar recently noted, Harrold’s Border War “has flipped Campbell’s geography on its head,” demonstrating that the Lower North “served as the primary theater of a border war over slavery that raged throughout the antebellum period.” [3]

Specifically in terms of this thesis, Harrold’s work provides valuable context about the implied or explicit violence which characterized abolitionist resistance to the 1850 law. Such resistance was not new, Harrold maintains, but an escalation of the decades-plus “border war” over slavery. As a result, Harrold’s chapter on the 1850 law largely focuses on resistance efforts in the Lower North–though he does cover several key cases and makes multiple claims about commissioners. [4]

Perhaps most intriguingly, Harrold paints a portrait of commissioners as reluctant enforcers–sometimes even actively sabotaging the law’s implementation. Commissioners “at times,” he writes, “impeded recovery and punished slave catchers,” deviating from the fine print of the statute and permitting anti-slavery lawyers to file writs of habeas corpus. Harrold attributes their purported reluctance to fear of “reprisals”  from their own communities should they attempt to enforce the controversial law. Harrold goes on to provide details about several cases, including the Moses Johnson Case, which unfolded in Chicago, where a U.S. Commissioner ruled that Johnson’s skin color did not match the descriptoin in the claimant’s affidavit (under Section 10). Yet while Harrold repeatedly refers to “the U.S. commissioner” when detailing cases in his chapter on the 1850 law, he does not explicitly name a single commissioner. Border War also contains several crucial misnomers about the law’s chief enforcers. First, Harrold denotes the post as a “new” office under the 1850 law–while, as explained in this site’s timeline, the post had actually been in existence since 1793. Likewise, he claims that commissioners occasionally “convicted claimants and their agents as kidnappers”–likely a result of conflating Federally appointed commissioners with local courts and grand juries, which did in fact frequently turn the tables and put slave catchers in legal jeopardy.  [5] Nonetheless, Border War is a seminal work of scholarship which breaks new ground in our understanding of resistance to the 1850 law in the Lower North–providing insights that will prove essential throughout the course of this thesis project.


[1] Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 4-16, 115, 132, 139-143.

[2] Stanley Campbell, 6

[3] Robert H. Churchill, “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North: Towards a Geography of Antislavery Violence,” Ohio Valley History 14:2 (Summer 2014): 52.

[4] Harrold, Border War, 151.

[5] Harrold, Border War, 142, 148-156.

Historiography: Commissioners in the Underground Railroad Literature

Before I begin researching and writing in earnest, it is important that I consult the voluminous literature on the Underground Railroad. While the most important historiographical texts for this project include Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970), Stanley Harrold’s Border War (2010) and Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018), these works are not discussed here in detail, but will each be the subject of future posts. Here, I’ll be examining how Underground Railroad scholars have treated commissioners (or, conversely, overlooked them), and what details they provide about hearings under the 1850 law. While not all the works discussed below cover the 1850 law in detail, this survey of the Underground Railroad literature should prove useful as I continue to hone in the scope of my honors thesis, and identify historiographical gaps that my work can attempt to answer.

I started with several foundational texts of Underground Railroad scholarship, which are national in scope. The first, Wilbur Siebert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898), which has been criticized for its romanticized portrayal of the Underground Railroad, mentions just two commissioners: Bostonians Edward Loring and George Ticknor Curtis. The next major work, Larry Gara’s The Liberty Line (1961), attempts to resurrect the Underground Railroad from the thick cloak of myths and legends surrounding it. However, while discussing cases under the 1850 statute, Gara does not explicitly name any commissioners, instead employing what I found to be a common practice within Underground Railroad scholarship. When detailing fugitive slave cases, historians routinely refer to “the United States commissioner,” without ever identifying the specific commissioner handling the case. [1]

More recent national histories of the Underground Railroad have emphasized the agency of the enslaved and the efforts of free black communities across the North. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s landmark tome, Runaway Slaves (1999) provides an in-depth analysis of slave escapes and day-to-day resistance, revealing that most escapees did not immediately head north, but instead practiced what they refer to as “lying out” near a plantation. However, their work does not treat the 1850 law in detail, and the book does not mention any commissioners or discuss any hearings under the controversial statute. [2]

Continuing the theme of exploring resistance, David Blight’s edited volume, Passages to Freedom (2004), focuses in on the actions of freedom seekers and abolitionists throughout the country. Especially relevant for this project, Blight’s edited collection includes numerous essays that tackle topics related to the 1850 law, including a piece on resistance to the statute authored by Richard Blackett, “‘Freemen to the Rescue!'” Blackett describes the myriad of African American-led vigilance operations which worked throughout Northern towns and cities to impede the law’s enforcement, and explores public reactions to several high-profile fugitive cases, albeit without delving deeply into the law’s operations. [3] In a similar vein, Lois Horton’s piece, “Kidnapping and Resistance,” explores the lengthy history of violent resistance to slave catching parties. The 1850 law, Horton argues, amplified violent resistance among black Northerners, while also convincing white abolitionists “that nonviolence alone could not thwart the power of slaveholders.” Horton describes multiple cases under the 1850 statute, though she does not name any commissioners or discuss the hearings in detail, instead highlighting the response of black communities to the law’s implementation. [4] Likewise, “Slavery is War,” Catherine Clinton’s biographical essay of Harriet Tubman, opens with a description of Tubman’s key role in the rescue of alleged fugitive Charles Nalle from a commissioner’s office in Troy, New York. Yet Clinton’s focus remains firmly on resistance to the law and the slave system; as a result, the commissioner in the case, Miles Beach, is not named. [5]

Published a year later, another national history, Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan (2005) provides a sweeping narrative of the Underground Railroad’s operations. Although Bordewich covers multiple cases under the 1850 law, he emphasizes resistance and the collaboration between freedom seekers and white and black abolitionists. Consequently, he does not name any of the statute’s enforcers, or describe hearings under the law in detail. [6]

Next, I turned my attention to the many regional and local histories detailing the operations of the Underground Railroad. Many of these texts emerged out of the 1990s, as a revival of popular and scholarly interest in the Underground Railroad spawned an influx of local studies. This generation of historians, part of what one scholar has termed the “second major wave of slavery revisionism,” highlighted the role Northern abolitionists played in the struggle against slavery. [7] The result was a sizable array of works examining Underground Railroad routes and activities in abolitionist strongholds, which continued to proliferate during the early 2000s and beyond.

As I sifted through the mountains of regional histories published within the last 30 years, I referred to two recent historiographical essays to help focus my efforts–Scott Hancock’s “Crossing Freedom’s Fault Line” (2013) and Corey Brooks’s “Reconsidering Politics in the Study of American Abolitionists” (2018). While both essays approach the field in different ways (and Brooks’s essay only briefly extrapolates recent developments within the Underground Railroad historiography), they each proved useful as I worked to identify key regional monographs. Likewise, I also turned to the recent work of two noted Underground Railroad scholars, Richard Blackett and Eric Foner, who cite numerous local studies in their own volumes. [8] Yet out of 20 such regional histories I examined, published between 2000-2010 (all of which covered cases under the 1850 law), only 9 explicitly name the commissioner involved. Many, like Kate Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land (2004) and Harriet Frazier’s Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves (2004), refer to an unnamed commissioner; while others, such as Keith Griffler’s study of the Ohio Valley, Front Line of Freedom (2004) and Ann Hagedorn’s study of Ripley, Ohio, Beyond the River (2002), do not reference any commissioner. [9]

Regional histories have continued to dominate the historiographical landscape, though recent works have placed more emphasis on the crucial role played by free African American communities throughout the North, and the agency of freedom seekers themselves. Likewise, in the wake of Stanley Harrold’s landmark study, Border War (2010), scholarly focus has increasingly shifted from abolitionist strongholds such as Boston and Syracuse, New York, to to the contentious border region. David Smith’s aptly titled On the Edge of Freedom (2013) highlights the actions of fugitive slaves escaping across the Mason Dixon line into south central Pennsylvania, and the efforts of their white and black abolitionist allies. Smith mentions both Harrisburg, Pennsylvania commissioner Richard McAllister, and Philadelphia’s Edward Ingraham, while also referring to (without ever naming) another Philadelphia commissioner, J. Cooke Longstreth. However, Smith focuses mostly on the reaction of border state residents to the controversial fugitive cases unfolding in their midst, rather than exploring the hearings themselves. [10] Another widely-cited tome, Cheryl LaRoche’s The Geography of Resistance (2013), examines four free black communities situated near the border in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, highlighting the pivotal role that free African American settlements played in shaping the routes taken by northbound freedom seekers. LaRoche’s work foregrounds escape routes and the agency of enslaved and free African Americans working in tandem on both sides of the North-South border, and as such her focus remains on resistance (as indicated in the book’s title). Her section on the 1850 law explores how black Americans marshaled their resources to oppose the law, but does not cover any cases under the statute in detail, nor mention any commissioners. [11]

The historiographical focus on the border region continued with Lowell Soike’s history of Iowa’s Underground Railroad network, Necessary Courage (2013). Soike vividly reconstructs the routes taken by freedom seekers through the Hawkeye State, while also examining the numerous legal cases which unfolded along the border, as anti-slavery Iowans resisted the attempts of slave catchers to seize alleged fugitives. While ably treating the state’s network of anti-slavery activists, Soike is among a select few scholars who also explores the operations of the law in detail. He identifies three commissioners, and thoroughly describes multiple fugitive cases which unfolded in the buckeye state. Soike writes at length about an 1855 case heard by Commissioner George Frazee of Burlington, Iowa, and the 1860 case of a fugitive named Eliza Grayson, who was successfully rescued from the custody of U.S. Commissioner Phillip Hoyne in Chicago. Soike also observes that one Missouri claimant apparently preferred to obtain a warrant of arrest from Springfield, Illinois commissioner Stephen A. Corneau, who had a track record of successful renditions, rather than a Chicago commissioner. [12] Yet few scholars delved as deeply into the law’s workings as Soike. Elsewhere, many references to commissioners appeared in conjunction with successful rescue attempts–with scholars focusing more on resistance to the law, rather than its actual operations.

Building on these recent historiographical developments, the most recent regional studies have spotlighted the vital roles played by African American abolitionists and biracial vigilance networks. Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom (2015) explores New York City’s vigilance operations, demonstrating how abolitionists responded to the threat of slave catchers and the passage of the 1850 law. In his chapter on the controversial law, Foner names three commissioners, and concisely describes two hearings under the statute which unfolded in the city–the September 1850 James Hamlet case, where Commissioner Alexander Gardiner invoked of Section 9 of the law; and the May 1854 case of Stephen, Robert and Jacob Pembroke, heard by Commissioner George W. Morton. Still, Foner’s focus remains on resistance, and he devotes considerably more attention to New York abolitionists’ legal and covert efforts to undermine the statute than the hearings themselves. [13]

Likewise, Thomas Mainwaring’s study of Washington County, Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad network, Abandoned Tracks (2018), highlights the crucial presence of predominately African American vigilance networks in facilitating slave escapes from the vicinity of Wheeling, Virginia through rural southwestern Pennsylvania. While focusing on resistance efforts, Mainwaring does not explore the operations of the 1850 law in detail, or name any commissioners, though he does excerpt an intriguing letter penned by Pittsburgh journalist J. Heron Foster to abolitionist Dr. Julius LeMoyne sometime during the 1850s. A former Wheeling newspaperman–in pursuit of a neighbor’s runaway slaves–had visited Foster’s Pittsburgh office, interrogating the Pennsylvanian about “who was U.S. Commissioner in Washington, Pa.” When Foster pleaded ignorance, the Wheeling slaveholder groused, “I suppose if you did [know] you wouldn’t tell me, as one of our citizens wants to seize a slave of his there?” While the letter occupies only a brief portion of Mainwaring’s work, it sheds new light on the ways in which slaveholders and abolitionists negotiated the mechanisms of enforcement. Foster closed his missive with a warning to LeMoyne and Washington County’s vigilance network: “if there is no U.S. Com. there,” he advised, “the ‘master’ will soon be there himself, in search.” [14]

While commissioners appear sparingly in the literature prior to Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018) (the subject of a future post), my examination of the extensive Underground Railroad scholarship allowed me to glean new details, and notice historiographical gaps. For instance, the commissioners most commonly referenced were Edward Loring and George Ticknor Curtis, both Bostonians–perhaps a result of historians’ intense focus on Boston’s abolitionist community. As the first commissioner to handle a case under the new law, New York’s Alexander Gardiner was also frequently mentioned, as were Commissioner Miles Beach of Troy, New York, and J.F. Sabine of Syracuse, New York.

Likewise, the literature revealed a degree of confusion and ambiguity about commissioners, their role in hearings and the law itself. For one, no less than 7 scholars claimed that the post of commissioner was “created” by the 1850 statute. [15] As outlined in my site timeline, the post of commissioner was actually in existence as early as 1793. The 1850 law encouraged the hiring of additional commissioners, who would be equipped with new powers to handle fugitive cases.

Although few works examined the law’s operations in depth, several scholars identified commissioners with purported anti-slavery leanings. Carol Mull’s The Underground Railroad in Michigan (2010) claims that reputed Underground Railroad operative Chester Gurney held the post of U.S. Commissioner in Centerville, Michigan, even as he actively assisted fugitive slaves in their bids for freedom. [16] In a similar vein, Don Papson and Tom Calarco’s Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City (2015) identifies Boston abolitionist George Hilliard as another active U.S. Commissioner who allegedly sheltered fugitives in his own home. The authors note that it is “unknown” if Hilliard ever presided over a fugitive case. [17]

All considered, the Underground Railroad literature reveals that there is a great deal more to learn about the actual operations of the 1850 law. While scholars have studied abolitionist resistance in detail, considerably less attention has been devoted to the law’s enforcement. Understanding this gap in the historiography should prove helpful as I continue to scour primary sources, further focusing my attention on which types of sources could reveal new insights about the mechanisms of enforcement inside the hearing room.


[1] Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York: MacMillan, 1898), 251, 271, [WEB]; Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1961), 110, 112.

[2] John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[3] Richard J.M. Blackett, “‘Freemen to the Rescue!’: Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” in David W. Blight (ed.), Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 133-147.

[4] Lois E. Horton, “Kidnapping and Resistance: Antislavery Direct Action in the 1850s,” in Blight (ed.), Passages to Freedom, 149-173.

[5] Catherine Clinton, “‘Slavery is War’: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” Blight (ed.), Passages to Freedom, 195-209.

[6] Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).

[7] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993), 239.

[8] Scott Hancock, “Crossing Freedom’s Fault Line: The Underground Railroad and Reentering African Americans in Civil War Causality,” Civil War History 59:2 (June 2013): 169-205; Corey M. Brooks, “Reconsidering Politics in the Study of American Abolitionists,” Journal of the Civil War Era 8:2 (June 2018): 291-317; see Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015); and 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).

[9] Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 133-134; Nat Brandt and Yanna Kroyt Brandt, In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williamson and the Rescue of Jane Johnson (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007); Harriet C. Frazier, Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves, and Those Who Helped Them, 1763-1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004); Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2004); James Patrick Morgans, John Todd and the Underground Railroad: Biography of an Iowa Abolitionist (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006); Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002); J. Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002); Ruby West Jackson and Walter T. McDonald, Finding Freedom: The Untold Story of Joshua Glover, Runaway Slave (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2007); William C. Kashatus, Just Over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad (West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 2002); Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tumban, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), 180; Owen W. Muelder, The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008); Pamela R. Peters, The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001); Milton C. Sernett, North Star County: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002); William J. Switala, Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2001);  William J. Switala, Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2004); William J. Switala, Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2006); William A. Link, Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); T. Stephen Whitman, Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775-1865 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2007); Carol E. Mull, The Underground Railroad in Michigan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010); James Patrick Morgans, The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier: Escapes from Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and the Territories of Kansas, Nebraska and the Indian Nations, 1840-1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010); Graham Russell Gao Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[10] David G. Smith, On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 124, 134, 145, 152.

[11] Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, The Geography of Resistance: Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 120-122.

[12] Lowell J. Soike, Necessary Courage: Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle Against Slavery (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2013), 61-65, 130-134.

[13] Foner, Gateway to Freedom, 126-128, 133-134, 169; recent scholarship has resurrected many long-overlooked black vigilance leaders, such as New York City’s David Ruggles and Louis Napoleon. See Hodges, David Ruggles (included in the regional studies I examined published between 2000-2010); and Sarah H.L. Gronningsater, “‘On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves’: Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7:2 (June 2017): 206-241.

[14] Thomas W. Mainwaring, Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 123.

[15] See Foner, Gateway to Freedom, 124; Griffler, Front Line of Freedom, 107; Morgans, John Todd and the Underground Railroad, 65; Don Papson and Tom Calarco, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 115; Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), xi; Smith, On the Edge of Freedom, 97; Whitman, Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake, 195.

[16] Mull, The Underground Railroad in Michigan, 100.

[17] Papson and Calarco, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City, 147.

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