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.