This Honors Thesis examines the enforcement of the law through a study of U.S. Commissioners, spanning 1850-1854. Chapters are structured thematically within that time period. In the thesis, I argue that U.S. authorities stumbled repeatedly, failing to enforce the statute anywhere near as extensively or harshly as its proslavery architects had imagined.
Only select, early drafts of the Introduction and Chapter 4 are currently available online (see below). The entire manuscript, and data set of fugitive cases, may be made available in the future. Visitors should also see the post Mapping the Law’s Enforcement for a first look at the new, under-construction digital history project using data from this Honors Thesis.
Honors Prospectus – Submitted in May 2019, approved by the History Department in June 2019
Introduction – U.S. Commissioners and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850
Chapter 1 – The Geography of Enforcement: U.S. Commissioners
The federal enforcement mechanism outlined in the law hinged upon a dramatic expansion of federal power, to be enacted through the appointment of additional U.S. commissioners. This chapter explores the struggle over appointing commissioners, one that began during the law’s first days on the books. The few active U.S. commissioners assembled their own makeshift operations that varied considerably from place to place, and the law’s disordered implementation bore more resemblance to a patchwork of localized slave-catching operations than a coherent national rendition system.
Chapter 2 – “The Free Negroes and Fugitive Slaves Would Kill Us”: Arresting Runaways
Stepping foot onto free soil, slaveholders quickly learned that the path to U.S. commissioners’ offices was neither straightforward nor smooth. Numerous on-the-ground realities impeded white southerners’ access to the resources of the national government. Those frustrating realities ran the gamut from mundane bureaucratic delays, such as difficulties locating U.S. commissioners and marshaling posses, to explosions of violent resistance. Slaveholders and U.S. officers forged tenuous alliances, but struggled to outmaneuver antislavery vigilance operatives, who made use of longstanding communication networks to preempt federal posses and tip off runaways. On paper, the statute book set forth a simple arrest procedure involving only a light load of paperwork, but on the ground in northern communities, slaveholders encountered a jumbled process rife with dead ends, chaos, and at times physical danger.
Chapter 3 – “The Law Don’t Contemplate a Trial”: Due Process
Seeking out federal officers, slaveholders expected prompt, one-sided hearings, a mere formality en route to recovering their human “property.” However, antislavery vigilance committees upended the “summary” process outlined in the statute book. Dispatching lawyers and black witnesses to the scene, vigilance operatives compelled U.S. commissioners to conduct their hearings more in line with northern concepts of due process. From 1850 to 1854, the vast majority of accused runaways were defended by northern lawyers, transforming what were supposed to be cursory hearings into meandering trials. As cases sprawled out over multiple days, weeks, and sometimes even months, vigilance operatives leaned on the levers of state and local courts, bringing charges against federal officers and slaveholders and forcing them to fend off legal challenges on two fronts. Pressure from outside the hearing room also reverberated inside, as vigilance committees marshaled crowds that pressured and intimidated U.S. officers and claimants. Even under the federal code and its palpably draconian provisions, securing the rendition of run- aways was seldom a simple process, constantly challenged and delayed by alert vigilance operatives, legal maneuvering, and in some instances forceful resistance
Chapter 4 – From Notorious to Nameless: A Historiographic Survey – Submitted in November 2019
In the decades following the Civil War, a series of accounts emerged that recast U.S. commissioners in a more sympathetic light, their reputations buoyed by the national drive towards reconciliation and prevailing notions of legal formalism. While absolving U.S. commissioners of the guilt for consigning men and women to bondage, these post-war accounts also diminished commissioners’ importance as individual actors, paving the way for their omission from later scholarship. Nearly a century later, Stanley Campbell’s widely cited study The Slave Catchers (1970) claimed that federal commissioners had faithfully enforced the 1850 statute, though his conclusions rested largely upon statistics, without exploring the human forces behind those numbers. More recently, historians have challenged Campbell’s influential thesis by illuminating the campaign of resistance waged by freedom seekers and northern anti-slavery activists. Yet scholars have not similarly revisited Campbell’s claims about the statute’s federal enforcers.