1850 Fugitive Slave Law

By Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

Presentation Gallery

U.S. Commissioner cartoon

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


Hamlet Rendition 1850

(New York Atlas, October 20, 1850)


Mason standing

Virginia senator James Mason (House Divided Project)


Meeker photo

George W. Meeker (Chicago History Museum)


Bross engraving

John A. Bross (Memorial, 1865)

Presentation Preparation

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

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

Introduction Editing

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

Historiographical Writing

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

Chapter 1: Drafting the Historiography Section

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

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

Introduction: Progress Report

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

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

Chapter 1: Progress Report

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been drafting the first chapter of my thesis. This chapter will explore commissioners’ contemporary notoriety in the 1850s and how their image evolved during the post-war period, before finally tracing portrayals of commissioners through the scholarship of the 20th century to the most recent academic works.

Thus far, I have devoted most of my efforts to the post-war section, in large part because I wanted to allow myself extra time to grapple with the voluminous scholarship that will help me place post-war accounts and memoirs of commissioners in the broader context of late 19th century America.  As noted in my two previous research journal posts, the post-war era witnessed a dramatic evolution in portrayals of these Circuit Court officers acting under the auspices of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. For my historiography chapter, Professor Pinsker advised that I consult both David Blight’s magisterial study of Americans’ evolving memory of the Civil War, Race and Reunion (2001), and the concept of legal formalism, specifically as scholar Timothy Huebner has applied it when examining the post-war legacy of controversial Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. [1] While drawing upon Huebner’s attribution of legal formalism as a defense employed by Taney’s friends and defenders in the 1870s and beyond, I noticed strikingly similar arguments being articulated in post-war accounts of commissioners. In addition, I consulted several scholarly works about legal formalism in order to better understand the notion. [2]

As white Americans’ selective memory-making sidelined issues of race and softened the  popular memory of slavery, the concept of formalism encouraged a view of judicial officials as passive actors, shifting the onus for unpopular decisions from the “whims or caprice” of an individual to the law itself. The result was a series of laudatory accounts which extolled former commissioners as fierce defenders of law and order, while taking pains to separate commissioners’ enactment of their official duties from any personal inclinations about slavery. The “villainous tribe” of commissioners who had dominated the headlines of the 1850s precisely because of their purported pro-slavery proclivities were supplanted in the public consciousness by a coterie of restrained, honorable men, whose hands were tied by the fine print of the statute book, irrespective of their personal sentiments. [3]

Elsewhere, I’ve also started to craft an introduction, though the initial section on commissioners’ contemporary notoriety is proving  difficult. While I’ve been able to demonstrate how individual commissioners were well known by both Northern and Southern readers, I still have to settle upon the most effective way of explaining contemporary awareness of commissioners’ operations––such as their use of deputies to seize and arrest alleged freedom seekers. Newspapers often named deputies involved in apprehending freedom seekers, and generally speaking evinced a fairly nuanced grasp of the law’s operations. Integrating this (however briefly) into my discussion of commissioners will be the next challenge I face.


[1] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Timothy S. Huebner, “Roger B. Taney and the Slavery Issue: Looking beyond—and before—Dred Scott,” Journal of American History 97:1 (June 2010): 32-33.

[2] William M. Wiecek, The Lost World of Classical Legal Thought: Law and Ideology in America, 1886-1937 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6-7, 64-122; Grant Gilmore, The Ages of American Law (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 36-39; Morton J. Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 253-266.

[3] Martin R. Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered, (Philadelphia: by the author, 1852), 154-155; “Another Deed of Darkness,” Pennsylvania Freeman, December 11, 1851.

Richard Hildreth’s Atrocious Judges (1856)

As I begin drafting my historiography chapter, it is important that I demonstrate how prominent––and infamous––the U.S. Commissioners handling fugitive cases were during the 1850s, before segueing to their evolving legacy during the postwar period. While my previous post explored how the contemporary cartoon literature harnessed the tropes of tyrannical authority and unchecked power when depicting commissioners and hearings under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, this post unpacks how one anti-slavery journalist, attorney and novelist applied those themes in his contemporary writings.

Helping to crystalize the image of the tyrannical commissioner was Richard Hildreth’s provocative tome Atrocious Judges (1856). A Bostonian and anti-slavery attorney, Hildreth was no stranger to the law’s practical operations, having squared off in the hearing room against Commissioner George T. Curtis, as well as helping to spearhead the campaign to remove one of the city’s other commissioners, Edward Loring. Compiling a series of biographical sketches of English judges authored by the British politician Lord John Campbell, Hildreth explicitly linked the abusive judges of 16th and 17th century England’s notorious Star Chamber to what he asserted was their “only American parallel”––U.S. Commissioners operating under the mandate of the 1850 law. [1]

Hildreth’s edited volume only heightened the apprehensions about commissioners’ powers that had been festering among many Northerners for more than five years. An advertisement for Hildreth’s book pointedly likened rendition hearings under the 1850 statute to “an American Star Chamber,” while another notice applauded the author’s timely warning about the perils of “judicial tyranny.” Joining the fray, the New York Tribune lent its support to Hildreth, drawing on longstanding Jeffersonian concerns about the dangers of an unchecked judiciary. The 1850 law, the Tribune warned, “has studded the country all over with a host… of judicial mercenaries,” who were empowered to “set at defiance the State Courts and the State authorities” and “spend any amount of the public money in hiring blackguard cutthroats to assist them and the Marshal in doing it.” There was no tangible difference, the paper concluded, between “the atrocious Judges of Charles II and his brother and the atrocious Judges of the times of Fillmore and Pierce,” except that Northerners were not fighting a monarch, but rather attempting to “shake off” the tyranny of “slaveholding domination.” [2]

Several years earlier, Hildreth had also brought his scorn for commissioners into the realm of fiction, in an expanded 1852 edition of his novel The White Slave, which included a new chapter in the wake of the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. While Harriet Beecher Stowe did not raise the specter of commissioners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), just months later, Hildreth did precisely that in his reissue of The White Slave (originally published as The Slave in 1836), penning a scathing and detailed description of one fictional commissioner’s operation. Taking stock of the “slave catching commissioner,” his constable and a Circuit Court judge who entered as a “secret partner,” Hildreth sardonically observed that the three unscrupulous men “play beautifully into each other’s hands.” These “patriots and Union-saviours,” Hildreth disdainfully noted, succeeded in establishing “a general slave-catching and kidnapping business.” Set in Philadelphia, the trio of dubious characters were seemingly modeled off Philadelphia Commissioner Edward D. Ingraham, the notorious slave catcher George F. Alberti and Circuit Court justice Robert Grier. It was likely no coincidence that the name of Hildreth’s fictitious constable, Grip Curtis, closely resembled that of Boston commissioner George Ticknor Curtis, whom the novelist especially loathed. However, this brief fictional description of a commissioner’s operation helps illustrate contemporary familiarity with the law’s operations. [3]

While Hildreth is undoubtedly a crucial figure for my opening chapter, my challenge moving forward will be to find the best way to incorporate both Atrocious Judges and Hildreth’s fictional work in my section on commissioners’ contemporary notoriety.


[1] Richard Hildreth (ed.), Atrocious Judges: Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1856), 35, 158-161, [WEB]; Robert M. Cover, “Atrocious Judges: Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression,” Columbia Law Review 68:5 (May 1968): 1003-1008; Robert M. Cover, Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), 149-158, 179; Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 255; Robert N. Strassfeld, “Atrocious Judges and Odious Courts Revisited,” Case Western Reserve Law Review 56:4 (Summer 2006): 899-900; Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 528.

[2] New York Evening Post, December 24, 1855; “A New Book by Richard Hildreth,” Washington, D.C. National Era, January 1, 1856; “Atrocious Judges,” New York Tribune, March 1, 1856.

[3] Richard Hildreth, The White Slave; Another Picture of Slave Life in America (London: George Routledge & Company, 1852), 236, [WEB].

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

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

Hamlet rendition Hail Columbia

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

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


Hamlet Rendition 1850

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

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


October 1850 engraving

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

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


1851 Engraving

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

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


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

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

[3] Bibliographic information from the Library of Congress.

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

U.S. Commissioners in Antebellum America

Although many contemporary newspapers and postwar accounts referred to the office of “Fugitive Slave Commissioner,” the post of U.S. Commissioner not only predated the controversial 1850 law, but comprised a myriad of other duties and powers. The origins of the office date back to 1793, when Congress first empowered U.S. Circuit Courts to appoint “discreet persons learned in the law” to take bail. In 1812, Congress expanded commissioners’ remit to include the taking of affidavits, and five years later, in March 1817, shuffled through legislation empowering commissioners to handle certain maritime cases (and officially designating these Circuit Court officers as “commissioners”). Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, U.S. Commissioners––especially those operating out of port cities––would still be exercising their jurisdiction over maritime matters that involved deserters, crimes committed at sea and slave trading. Yet in 1842, Congress expanded commissioners’ authority once again–allowing them “all powers that any justice of the peace, or other magistrate, of any of the United States may now exercise in respect to offenders for any crime or offense against the United States.” Effectively forming what scholar Charles Lindquist has termed a “minor federal judiciary,” U.S. Commissioners could now arrest, imprison and set the bail for those who had committed Federal crimes. Eight years later, in 1850, Congress would again imbue U.S. Commissioners with lofty new powers, this time to hear and determine fugitive cases. [1]

From the mid-1840s onward, U.S. Commissioners found themselves adjudicating cases involving an array of Federal crimes with the powers afforded them under the 1842 statute. In particular, commissioners were inundated with a litany of counterfeiting and mail robbery cases. In January 1858, Hartford, Connecticut commissioner J.C. Comstock heard the case of the “three cent counterfeiters,” while Galesburg, Illinois commissioner George C. Lamphere examined five Illinois men “charged with counterfeiting gold coin” in February 1859. [2] Reports of mail fraud also abounded. In 1848, a woman was brought before New Orleans commissioner M.M. Cohen accused of opening a posted letter and “having abstracted the contents therefrom.” [3] Other cases were markedly more severe, such as in early 1858, when New Haven, Connecticut commissioner Charles R. Ingersoll heard the case of a man charged with “robbing the mails at various times,” and used his power under the 1842 law to set the bail at a steep $20,000. [4] Months later, in October 1858, Commissioner J.A. Settle of San Antonio, Texas presided over a case in which a man was accused of “robbing our Post Office.” The hearing included at least six witnesses, and “will probably occupy the Court all day to-day,” predicted a local paper. [5]

In coastal cities, U.S. Commissioners routinely exercised their jurisdiction over maritime cases, adjudicating a range of crimes committed at sea, including desertion, murder and even slave trading. Cases involving deserters were more common, such as in 1845, when Commissioner Cohen in New Orleans heard the case of three sailors charged with desertion by their captain. Likewise, in 1852, Commissioner George W. Morton of New York City presided over the case of four Prussian sailors, who had deserted their ship when it docked at New York. Morton, who just months earlier had decided a fugitive case, ordered the four men to be returned to their ship. Even Chicago commissioner Phillip A. Hoyne encountered deserters from one of the many “lake craft” traversing the Great Lakes–in one case, Hoyne gave a group of four deserters, unhappy with their contracts, the ultimatum to “either peaceably go back to the vessel, or be committed to jail.” The foursome chose to return to their ship. [6]

Other maritime cases garnered more fanfare and attention. A sensational “murder on the high seas” was on the docket of Hartford, Connecticut commissioner Erastus Smith in July 1853, while Jersey City, New Jersey commissioner J.P. Vroom heard the case of a Chinese man accused of killing a captain and his brother during the spring of 1860. [7] U.S. Commissioners in coastal communities also frequently conducted examinations of those caught captaining “slavers” or slave ships, in defiance of the United States’ ban on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In early May 1854, only weeks before the highly publicized rendition of Anthony Burns from Boston, U.S. Commissioner C.L. Woodbury examined a captured slave trader in the city. Later, on the eve of the 1860 presidential election, Portsmouth, New Hampshire commissioner Horace Webster held a hearing for four sailors seized on the west African coast and “charged with voluntarily serving on board the slaver Erie,” setting their trial date for later that month. [8]

While U.S. Commissioners appointed after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law still possessed the power to hear any of these cases, many of the new appointments were made with special reference to the controversial statute. When Justice Robert Grier issued a spate of three new appointments in November 1850, he explicitly cited the “late act of Congress concerning fugitives from labor” which required the Circuit Courts to “make such appointments in places where their services were likely to be needed.” [9] As New Yorker Samuel Johnson noted while declining an appointment in October 1850, U.S. Commissioners named in the law’s wake were understood to be “especially charged” with its execution. [10]

Moreover, following the passage of the 1850 law, rumors swirled about new appointees, and rampant speculation ensued about who had actually been offered (and had accepted) commissionerships. These numerous reports illuminate the considerable degree of ambiguity and uncertainty that clouded the post of U.S. Commissioner at the ground level. In December 1850, during the hearing of alleged fugitive Henry Long in New York, anti-slavery lawyers called into question Commissioner Charles M. Hall’s credentials. Hall, they argued, had only recently relocated to the city, and “derived his pretended authority from his employer, Commissioner [Alexander] Gardiner, and not from the Circuit Court,” as stipulated in Section 1 of the 1850 law. They pronounced Hall a “sham Commissioner,” though their protests went unheeded. [11] Slave catchers in search of an alleged fugitive near Trenton, New Jersey experienced similar confusion in 1853, when they “called upon” James Ewing, who they had learned was recently appointed U.S. Commissioner. Yet much to their dismay, Ewing informed the pair of Virginians that he “had no authority, never having accepted the appointment.” [12] Three years later, a Perry County, Pennsylvania newspaper wondered aloud if that county’s U.S. Commissioner, Alexander B. Anderson, was “still an officeholder under the present National Administration.” [13] Elsewhere, a correspondent in Salem, Illinois reported that a “disreputable fellow” named Merritt “says he is a Commissioner under the Fugitive Slave Law,” but that his claim “is doubted here.” [14]

Other reports reveal surprising ways in which the 1850 law was interpreted by commissioners. In late 1851, when three white indentured apprentices of New Yorker John Russell fled the city and made their way to Connecticut, Russell had the three “runaway apprentices” brought before U.S. Commissioner Charles Ingersoll in New Haven. Drawing on the very verbiage of the 1850 statute, Russell maintained that “under the laws of the State of New York,” the three apprentices owed him “service or labor.” As Russell well knew, the 1850 statute, as well as the original 1793 Fugitive Slave Law and the so-called Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution, shied away from using the words “slave” or “slaves.” Exploiting that ambiguity, Russell argued that the phrase employed in the law––”fugitives from service or labor”––included “fugitive apprentices,” even if they were white and only indentured for a term of several years. For his part, Commissioner Ingersoll ruled that Russell’s claim was “within the purview of the constitutional provision requiring the surrender of ‘persons held in service,'” and accordingly issued a certificate of removal to Russell, the same certificate a slaveholder would have received under the 1850 law. While a New Haven paper styled the affair a “novel case,” anti-slavery editorialists seized upon Ingersoll’s decision to rail against the controversial law. “The provisions for summary process… with the $5 premium to the Commissioner for decreeing the surrender, are as applicable to our own sons,–aye, and our daughters, too,” fumed Jane Grey Swisshelm in Pittsburgh. [15]

Similar cases appeared before Boston commissioner Edward Loring, Pennsylvania commissioner Charles F. Heazlitt and another New York commissioner, all of whom ruled that apprentices or indentured servants fell under the ambiguous wording of the 1850 law. However, Commissioner George W. Morton in New York City broke with his colleagues, ruling in a July 1853 case that the word “person” as used in the Constitution’s so-called Fugitive Slave Clause, “is synonymous with slave,” and “the whole scope and object of that clause… is exhausted and answered, in its application to Fugitive Slaves, exclusive of any and all other description of runaway servants.” [16]

While U.S. Commissioners attracted the most public attention––and outrage––for the powers they wielded over alleged fugitive slaves under the 1850 law, understanding the myriad of other duties and powers they held helps contextualize the office and its place in the Federal judiciary of the antebellum United States.


[1] U.S. Statutes at Large 1 (1793): 333-335; U.S. Statutes at Large 2 (1812): 679-682; U.S. Statutes at Large 2 (1817): 350; U.S. Statutes at Large 5 (1842): 517; Charles A. Lindquist, “The Origin and Development of the United States Commissioner System,” The American Journal of Legal History 14:1 (January 1970): 6-8.

[2] “Counterfeiters,” Hartford, CT Courant, January 26, 1858; “More Arrests of Counterfeiters in Knox County,” Chicago Tribune, February 22, 1859.

[3] “Opening a Letter,” New Orleans Crescent, April 5, 1848.

[4] Hatford, CT Courant, January 22, 1858.

[5] San Antonio, TX Ledger and Texan, October 16, 1858.

[6] “Before U.S. Commissioner Cohen,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 30, 1845; “U.S. Commissioner’s Office,” New York Times, October 14, 1852; “Deserting Seamen,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1862.

[7] “Murder on the High Seas,” Hartford, CT Courant, July 11, 1853; “The Sloop Spray Mystery,” New York Herald, April 4, 1860.

[8] “Seizure of a Slaver,” Boston Courier, May 1, 1854; “U.S. Commissioner’s Court,” Savannah Republican, quoted in Charleston, SC Courier, December 22, 1858; “U.S. Commissioner’s Court,” Portsmouth, NH Journal of Literature and Politics, November 3, 1860; also see “The Slave Trade–Mysterious Arrest of a Colored Boy,” Boston Liberator, July 6, 1855.

[9] “Laying Down the Law,” Washington, D.C. National Intelligencer, November 30, 1850.

[10] Samuel E. Johnson to Alexander Gardiner, October 26, 1850, Series 4, Box 14, Folder 363, MS 230, Gardiner-Tyler Family Papers, Archives, Yale University.

[11] Annual Report of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Presented at New-York, May 6, 1851 (New York: William Harned, 1851), 26, [WEB].

[12] “Slave Catching in Trenton,” Pittsburgh Saturday Morning Visiter, April 16, 1853.

[13] Bloomfield, PA Perry County Democrat, August 14, 1856.

[14] “Another Negro Catching Speculation––Profits Small,” Chicago Tribune, January 23, 1860; Merritt, according to the Chicago Tribune, was the editor of the Salem Advocate. The paper had two editors at the time, J.D. and E.L. Merritt. See “Brown’s Brother,” Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1859.

[15] “The First Fugitive Case in Connecticut,” New Haven, CT Register, December 19, 1851, quoted in Hartford, CT Courant, December 22, 1851; “Fugitive Apprentices,” Pittsburgh Saturday Morning Visiter, January 3, 1852.

[16] “U.S. Commissioner’s Court,” Pennsylvania Freeman, July 14, 1853; “Arrest of a White Boy Under the Fugitive Slave Law,” Natchez, MS Mississippi Free Trader, March 30, 1853; “Recent American Decisions, in the District Court of the United States, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, July 1853,” in Asa I. Fish and Henry Wharton (eds.), The University of Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register (Philadelphia: D.B. Canfield, 1853), 1:654-656, [WEB]; also see John Van Orden Case files.

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