The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 deservedly holds a place of infamy in American history. It was crafted by slaveholders, for slaveholders, who expected the federal government to implement it. But how was it actually enforced? Scholars have explored antislavery resistance in detail, though comparatively little is known about the law’s enforcement. This project reveals new insights into the operations of the federal code through a study of its chief enforcers, U.S. Circuit Court officers known as U.S. commissioners. Under the law, these “fugitive slave commissioners” were equipped with new powers to handle fugitive cases. Yet of the more than 300 commissioners in office during the period of the law’s operation (1850-1864), less than 40 ever presided over a fugitive case. This first-ever comprehensive examination of federal commissioners illuminates the mechanisms of enforcement behind the draconian statute, while also shedding new light on the effectiveness of antislavery resistance. On this site, visitors can see the progress of my Honors thesis for the History Department at Dickinson College, 2019-2020.
Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College
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