1850 Fugitive Slave Law

By Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

Category: Historiography (page 1 of 2)

Writing Chapter 2

As I work on writing chapter 2, which looks at the arrest process, I’ll need to be sure to spotlight the new evidence I’ve uncovered during the course of my research. In particular, I’ll foreground the two cases where I’ve found significant caches of previously untapped archival material: the 1853 Wilkes Barre Case and the abortive January 1851 slave catching foray of North Carolinian Richard Riddick to Boston (mentioned in my previous outline of chapter 2). Together, these cases will help me underscore the chapter’s main thesis: while on paper, the law augured a seemingly imposing alliance between federal officers and slaveholders, that alliance often fizzled out on the ground level, leaving slaveholders frustrated and exasperated with what they saw (in many cases) as evidence of the treachery of federal officials, and indicative of the law’s overall failures.

Outlining Chapter 2

Having submitted my initial draft of chapter 1, which focuses on U.S. commissioners, it’s now time to map out my plans for chapter 2: a thematic chapter focused on the arrest process. Whereas chapter 1 focused on the totality of the enforcement landscape in the free soil north, and introduced the concept of a geography of enforcement, chapter 2 zooms in to the zones where the law was being enforced–against local opposition–to illuminate the struggle between  federal officers, backed by pro-law shadow groups, and anti-slavery vigilance committees.

  • Commissioners’ Deputies and Forming Posses
    • I will first need to explain how U.S. commissioners appointed deputies to execute their warrants of arrest. Offering a brief background of Section 5 of the law will allow me to segue into how it was actually implemented on the ground. It will be crucial to expand on the concept of the pro-law shadow groups (from the Union Safety Committee in New York, to acquiescent local constables and independent slave catchers). In the law’s key enforcement hubs, such groups helped to prop up the weak federal rendition system.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHY: In addition to touting the law’s enforcers as faithful and diligent, Stanley Campbell highlights the support the Pierce and Buchanan administration afforded commissioners’ deputies. [1] More recently, some scholars have stressed the power of anti-slavery resistance, especially the efforts of African Americans to resist the law throughout the border region. [2] In addressing the law’s arrest process, Robert Churchill has argued that by the late 1850s “the law quite literally came as a thief in the night,” observing how white northerners’ mounting antipathy towards the rendition process, coupled with the threat of violent resistance, pushed federal marshals and deputies to operate discreetly and often under the cover of darkness. [3]
    • NEW EVIDENCE: In addition to the data set of arrests I have been compiling,  I have uncovered new primary source material relating to two attempted arrests: North Carolina slaveholder Richard Riddick’s journey to Boston in January 1851, and several failed attempts to capture a freedom seeker named Lewis [4]; and over 30 pages of previously unpublished depositions of the failed arrest of William Thomas in the 1853 Wilkes Barre Case, drawn from the National Archives in Philadelphia. Together, these cases throw new light on the tenuousness of the arrest process and how anti-slavery activists managed to frustrate the process. In the attempted arrest of Lewis, the deputies expressed fear for their own safety (explicitly mentioning the actions of Boston’s anti-slavery vigilance committee) if they attempted to arrest Lewis. In the Wilkes Barre case, anti-slavery lawyers from Philadelphia’s revitalized vigilance committee helped charge the federal deputies for crimes under state law.  For additional context, I have culled numerous trial transcripts (including penalty hearings), and found more than 20 depositions from deputies in other cases throughout the country, published contemporaneously in newspapers or pamphlets that shed light on the arrest process.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHICAL INSIGHT: Harnessing the depositions of deputies, this section will illuminate how posses were formed, and the heavy reliance on specially deputized and temporary officers to help arrest alleged freedom seekers. The frequent use of temporary deputies who operated as part-time slave catchers (often simultaneously), blurred the lines between federal authority and private profiteering. Despite the law’s promises that federal officers would superintend the arrest of freedom seekers, a close analysis of the arrest process reveals that slaveholders still had to do a lot of the heavy lifting, often accompanying posses and at times physically assisting officers in subduing escapees, placing themselves in harm’s way. This helps explain why many slaveholders felt disgruntled with the law and federal officers, and grew disillusioned with the process over time. Posses also faced stiff resistance from northern communities, and free African Americans and freedom seekers in particular combatted arrest attempts with physical force, while anti-slavery lawyers often employed legal means to retaliate against deputies involved in enforcing the law. While Churchill has asserted that the law’s enforcers moved to covert tactics by the end of the decade, such controversial modes of arrest were already commonplace in the period between 1850-1854. The patterns of the arrest process, from hiring closed carriages to undertaking arrests at night, or in close proximity to rail lines, suggest the force and power of anti-slavery resistance was omnipresent in the minds of federal officials, whose tentativeness often irked claimants, even as the secretive mode of arrest outraged many northerners.
[1] Stanley Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 84, 87-89.

[2] Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Politicians and the Politics of Violence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

[3] Robert Churchill, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 223.

[4] The attempted arrest of Lewis is mentioned in Gary Collison’s Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), though Lewis is not named, and Collison gleaned his information only from the reports published in the Boston Commonwealth. The correspondence between Richard Riddick, the Union Safety Committee lawyer and Boston’s federal officials are replete with new insights into the case and the arrest process. These letters are briefly described in John Hope Franklin’s A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1976), 153-154, though I plan to use the correspondence in considerably more detail in this chapter.

Historiographical Insights on U.S. Commissioners

As I finish up my initial draft of Chapter 1, I’ll need to work on refining my historiographical arguments and making abundantly clear what new insights my research has to offer. To begin with, I argue that when explaining the law’s failures, historians have tended to gravitate to the latter half  of the decade, where resistance peaked and a number of high-profile rescues exemplified the growing defiance of the statute. I suggest that this focus overlooks the crucial problem that defined the law’s enforcement from the outset: the availability and effectiveness of federal officers.

Next, about half-way through the chapter, I complicate Stanley Campbell‘s famous figure that 82.2% of alleged freedom seekers who appeared before U.S. commissioners were remanded to slavery. Campbell harnesses this statistic to paint a portrait of an effective body of federal officers implementing the 1850 law throughout the north. Disgruntled southerners, he writes, “had no way of knowing” that the rate of rendition was as high as 82.2%. [1] However, this blanket statistic overlooks the crucial reality on the ground—the reality that slaveholding claimants encountered every time they headed north. Not only were commissioners unavailable in many areas, but the lion’s share of renditions under the law occurred in a small cluster of spaces; elsewhere, throughout much of the free soil north, the law was seldom, if ever implemented. Campbell’s statistic would have done little to placate slaveholders’ underlying frustrations with the new law: they had demanded an effective, prompt and above all national force of federal officers who could aid them in recapturing enslaved men and women. By 1851, it was becoming increasingly apparent that this imagined force was far from a national reality.

Finally, I stress that in the three main hubs of enforcement which emerged during the period 1850 to 1854 (New York City, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, PA), a small group of aggressively pro-slavery U.S. commissioners worked in tandem with pro-law shadow groups to implement the statute. While recent scholars have largely overlooked these dynamics on the ground, I will need to find a compelling historiographical pitch to make the chapter’s overarching argument clear and comprehendible to readers.


[1]  Stanley Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970), 125, 135, 200-207.

Outlining Chapter 1

As I prepare to write Chapter 1, which focuses on the struggle over appointing U.S. commissioners from 1850-1854, I am first outlining the main sections of the chapter. In doing so, I am highlighting what the existing historiography has to contribute, the new evidence I have assembled and what historiographic insights I will attempt to make at each stage. Bear in mind that this is a preliminary outline, that will likely change as I receive feedback and began to draft the chapter.


From 1850 to 1854, federal courts strained, and ultimately failed, to live up to the ambitious designs set forth in the new law. Vital to the statute’s successful rollout was a dramatic expansion of federal power, through the appointment of additional U.S. commissioners. Across the north, the struggle over naming new commissioners pitted black-led vigilance committees against an array of pro-law vigilance committees. What emerged from that wrangling was not a national network of enforcers, but rather a patchwork of staunchly pro-slavery commissioners operating in just a handful of locales, usually with the backing of pro-law vigilance committees. This geography of enforcement illuminates not only the power of resistance and local agency in curtailing the envisioned expansion of federal power, but also how slaveholders in time learned to navigate that geography, manipulating the mechanisms of enforcement to their advantage. The lack of commissioners also throws new light on how views of the law changed over time: as they sought out commissioners and confronted firsthand the haphazardness of the federal enforcement apparatus, slaveholders’ initial ebullience for the law gradually gave way to disillusionment. Yet even as slaveholders chafed at the spottiness of the law’s enforcement apparatus and its regional limitations, anti-slavery activists bristled at its limited successes.

  • Attempted Expansion
    • The 1850 law called for a dramatic expansion of the federal court system, with the law’s principal author, Virginia senator James Mason, even proposing that three additional U.S. commissioners be appointed in every northern county to handle the expected caseload under the new statute.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHY: Historians Richard Blackett, Eric Foner, Stanley Harrold and Steven Lubet have all noted the public pressure exerted against prospective commissioners. Blackett, who among those four scholars has given the most extensive treatment to commissioners, argues that “the paucity of commissioners in many areas, as well as the ostracism of those who accepted the post,” proved crucial to the law’s failure. “The absence of a commissioner mattered,” he writes, noting that “large swaths” of the north went without a U.S. commissioner. [1]
    • NEW EVIDENCE: From the appointment papers at the National Archives in Philadelphia, I can harness over a dozen previously untapped letters between prospective commissioners throughout Pennsylvania and federal officials in Philadelphia, revealing the difficulties in appointing U.S. commissioners, particularly in the fall of 1850. Likewise, an invaluable (and previously un-cited) letter written by West Chester, PA commissioner James L. Jones yields insight into his reasoning for accepting an appointment, his fervent Unionism. At the same time, a Carlisle lawyer, J. Ellis Bonham, revealed that he was unsure if the law would offer enough financial incentive to offset the consequences of accepting the post. In addition, letters, diaries and newspaper columns authored by slaveholders offer insight into the workings of the federal enforcement mechanism, and the ways claimants sought out and interacted with commissioners. Finally, an in-progress spreadsheet of U.S. commissioners can provide the first-ever quantification of how many commissioners were actually handling fugitive cases.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHICAL INSIGHT: This section will reveal the haphazardness of the federal enforcement apparatus and the chaotic human reality behind it, while also quantifying the number of commissioners to demonstrate the inadequacy of the federal enforcement mechanism. The rendition system never became a truly national means of recapturing escapees, which helps throw light on southerners’ mounting dismay with the law and its efficacy.
  • Geography of Enforcement
    • I introduced this term “geography of enforcement” in the initial draft of my introduction, as another way of understanding the law’s enforcement, especially in light of what historian Robert Churchill has termed the “geography of violence.” [2] In this section, I will need to refine that idea, and build off of my new statistics on commissioners and the arrest process to show how the law’s enforcement largely revolved around several key hubs of enforcement: namely, Cincinnati, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York City.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHY: Robert Churchill claims that Cincinnati was “the most active commissioner’s court in the nation” when it came to enforcing the 1850 law, while also noting the prevalence of arrests in New York City. [3]
    • NEW EVIDENCE: In addition to numerous connections between U.S. commissioners, deputy forces and Union Safety Committees in the coastal cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia (pro-law groups buttressed by leading merchants and bankers), reports of fugitive cases in southern papers, as well as letters written by southern claimants exuding praise for U.S. commissioners and circulated in southern papers, reveal that southerners in time learned to manipulate the mechanisms of enforcement and bring their cases before commissioners known to be more amenable to slaveholders. Harrisburg’s Richard McAllister, for instance, brazenly marketed his office among southern presses, while Commissioner George W. Morton, and his partnership with U.S. Marshal Henry F. Tallmadge, became a consistent favorite of southern claimants journeying to New York City.
    • HISTORIOGRAPHICAL INSIGHT: Even while negotiating the threadbare and haphazard federal enforcement apparatus, southerners in time learned to manipulate the mechanisms of enforcement, seeking out commissioners favorable to their interests. However, the geography of enforcement was shaped both by human actors (complaisant U.S. commissioners and their sophisticated deputy operations) as well as political divisions, and claimants flocked to key hubs where prominent groups of northern merchants  and bankers professed support for the 1850 law, in some cases even helping to cover slaveholders’ legal fees. Although the law never truly became an efficacious national instrument, it did manage to operate successfully within several locales for extended periods. This nuance helps illuminate how slaveholders could be disillusioned over the law’s limitations, even as anti-slavery activists fumed over the law’s geographically limited successes.


[1] 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), 56-64, 458.

[2] Robert Churchill, The Underground Railroad and the Geography of Violence in Antebellum America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[3] Churchill, The Underground Railroad, 7, 165.

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 revolted,” 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.

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