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.