1850 Fugitive Slave Law

By Cooper Wingert, Dickinson College

Mapping the Law’s Enforcement

Maps of individual arrests by U.S. officers under the Fugitive Slave Law,1850-1854. Created using Palladio (Stanford University) and Historical Map Chart (https://historicalmapchart.net/usa-historical.html), from the data set assembled as part of this thesis project. The maps include only arrests made by federal officers, not instances of recaption initiated by slaveholders. Data is configured by the number of individuals arrested (total of 81), not by instances of arrest.

1850 national map

Concentration of arrests by U.S. officers under the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1854


Map Lower North

Arrests by U.S. officers in the Lower North, 1850-1854


Map West

Arrests by U.S. officers in the West, 1850-1854


New England Map

Arrests by U.S. officers in New England, 1850-1854

Final Reflections

It’s been over 14 months since I first started writing my honors prospectus in February 2019, sketching out a preliminary research proposal and identifying key caches of source material. Come mid-April 2020, I submitted the final draft of my honors thesis to the History Department. In this post, I will reflect back on everything that has transpired over the preceding year-plus of research and writing, and offer some lessons learned along the way.

  • Embrace the challenges. This borders on cliché, I know, but it’s worth keeping this maxim constantly in mind, as the honors process is rigorous for a reason. I approached my senior thesis already having an authorial background in the trade press world, which certainly helped, but I still found the task of writing this thesis to be a tall order. Approaching it humbly, as an intellectual challenge only to be accomplished by countless hours of hard work, helped immensely. No matter your experience level or background, writing original historical scholarship requires ferreting out and grappling with innumerable primary sources, and attempting to situate your findings within troves of extant scholarship written by accomplished academics. Simply put, this is a daunting process, but a rewarding one if you put in the hard work and accomplish something you haven’t done before.
  • Welcome criticism. At its core, the most important part of this rigorous honors process is criticism. Towards the beginning of this project, I might have been more inclined to shy away from, or simply shrug off, critiques of my work. By mid-way through, however, I was practically soliciting criticism. Through pursuing honors, you are attempting to add original insights to reams of existing scholarly literature on a given topic. No matter how versed you are in the historiography (or perhaps because you are so immersed in it), it’s deceptively easy to get lost in the weeds. Receiving comments from my thesis supervisor, Professor Pinsker, helped me see the broader significance of my work. His criticism and our discussions during weekly meetings aided me in conceptualizing just what this thesis was trying to say, and perhaps even importantly, why that was important. The entire History Department, moreover, was an invaluable resource, and their critiques following my December 2019 presentation were incredibly illuminating, pointing out many avenues and angles which I had neglected to explore. All considered, their criticism made the final product of this thesis immeasurably better.
  • Plan your research trips. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the Department generously funded a research trip to Philadelphia as part of this Honors Thesis. I went into this process with archival experience, but when researching a topic national in scope, I found that it was absolutely essential to plan out my research trips with meticulous attention to detail. When you have limited time, and especially when you’re on Dickinson’s dime, it is crucial that you have a good sense of what you’re looking for in a particular archive. Be sure to familiarize yourself with various archives’ procedures well in advance, so as not to waste the precious hours you have on site. Over two days in Philadelphia, I managed to squeeze in visits to three major archives, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the National Archives (Philadelphia branch). My efficient research was largely due to the fact that I had compiled Word documents with convenient checklists of the resources I was looking for (to ensure I didn’t miss anything), in addition to corresponding with archivists weeks in advance, who kindly pulled needed materials beforehand.
  • Spreadsheets. Use them. I’ll admit, at the beginning of this process I was a spreadsheet-doubter, but the experience of writing about the enforcement of a national law across many states converted me into a devout believer. Especially when you’re dealing with hundreds of diverse primary sources, using a spreadsheet not only proves vital to organizing your research, but also enables you to see larger patterns that might otherwise have escaped notice. For instance, I compiled a spreadsheet of the 81 arrests under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law between September 1850 to December 1854, which revealed the prevalence of “special” temporary deputies, who participated in roughly three-quarters of all arrests under the law. This, alongside other insights, led me to shift the focus of chapter 2. I devoted an entire section to examining these “special” deputies, after the spreadsheet revealed how ubiquitous they were. Beyond this particular example, the spreadsheets I created yielded heaps of important statistics that demonstrated how the law actually functioned on the ground throughout the north.
  • Embrace the surprises. Perhaps the most rewarding part of this entire experience has been the surprising turns where over a year-plus of research has taken this thesis. Looking back at my prospectus, one can see that I clearly embarked upon this project with a general sense of what I expected to find: draconian, ruthless U.S. commissioners enacting a controversial law. This was, after all, grounded in what was for all intents and purposes the existing scholarly consensus: that from 1850-1854, the Fugitive Slave Law was effectively enforced by U.S. officers. However, as I got deeper and deeper into the research, my archival findings increasingly complicated this familiar narrative. I did not expect to write a thesis with the title of “Embattled Enforcement: U.S. Commissioners and the Failures of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1854,” but that is where the research led me. Chapter 3, which examines rendition hearings under the law, serves as a case in point. I expected to write about federal commissioners, working hand-in-hand with slaveholders to condemn accused runaways to a lifetime of bondage. Instead, I unearthed a much more protracted struggle that was taking place in federal hearing rooms, between slaveholders, northern lawyers, black anti-slavery vigilance operatives and federal commissioners. To help bring my own sense of surprise home to readers, I opened my thesis with a narrative vignette of a Missouri slaveholder swearing at a U.S. marshal in Chicago–the exact opposite of the cabal-like atmosphere I had expected to find in U.S. commissioners’ hearing rooms. Little did I expect to find the well-known black abolitionist Martin Delany testify at a federal rendition hearing in May 1853–and even more startling, Delany’s testimony ultimately freed an accused freedom seeker, over the word of three white Tennesseans! These surprising archival discoveries ultimately became crucial to my overall argument, which itself would have been a surprise to me when I was writing my prospectus: that the law was never a viable national instrument to re-enslave freedom-bound men, women and children.

Editing the Full Thesis

With the draft of Chapter 3, a revised version of chapter 4 and a conclusion already roughed out, the next week entails a thoroughgoing and intensive revision process. This means putting all four chapters, as well as the introduction and conclusion, together, and making sure they fit well into a cohesive structure. Undoubtedly, this will entail some substantial revisions of the introduction, which I drafted last fall, modifying it to a more narrative framework that will provide readers with sufficient background before stepping into chapters 1-3 (the thematically structured chapters).

Outlining Chapter 3

As I prepare to write chapter 3, which focuses on the hearings themselves, I’ll need to take another look at the secondary literature, particularly the work of Richard Blackett, to see what new insights I can offer. Just as importantly, it will be important to hone in on several key cases to feature prominently, that offer surprising new insights about the dynamics inside the hearing room. These might include the John Freeman Case in Indianapolis, which was delayed for weeks by U.S. Commissioner William Sullivan over the summer of 1853, and the 1853 case in Pittsburgh of Calvin Jones, who was released thanks to testimony from African American allies in Pittsburgh. Both cases highlight how anti-slavery influence without shaped the dynamics inside the hearing room, offering important jumping off points for a reassessment of hearings under the 1850 statute.

The Arrest Process

As I finish writing chapter 2, which focuses on the arrest process, it’s important that I focus on clearly articulating my ideas for a concise and effective thesis paragraph.

Initially, slaveholders looked to the 1850 law with varying degrees of hope and optimism, precisely because of the revolutionary new alliance it brought into being between themselves and federal officials. Instead of venturing alone into northern communities to “steal” men and women they claimed as human property—all while risking violent reprisals from freedom seekers and their northern allies, or prosecution under northern states’ personal liberty laws—slaveholders could call the might of the federal government to their aid. In doing so, white southerners expected a streamlined process of recapturing and reenslaving runaways: federal officers would take the lead role in arresting alleged escapees and combatting violent resistance, thus shielding slaveholders from bodily harm. Judged against these expansive ambitions, the shaky and often fractious alliance that emerged left much to be desired. For slaveholders, that experience of journeying northward and attempting to invoke federal assistance laid bare a disconcerting reality: while the U.S. government had long been the reliable ally of slaveholders at the national level, on the ground in northern communities, that alliance was by no means a given.

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.

Writing Chapter 1

As I write Chapter 1, I will need to work on driving home the main historiographical insight of the chapter–that while  scholars often look to the latter part of the 1850s to explain the law’s failures, the story of the attempted federal expansion, beginning in September 1850, reveals crucial insights about the law and its limitations that would shape the contest over its enforcement for the rest of the decade. This chapter highlights the struggle over appointing additional U.S. commissioners, showcasing how the absence or ineffectiveness of these federal officers plagued the law’s operations from the outset. In doing so, I will of course need to address resistance–explaining how African American-led vigilance committees disrupted the law’s operations from the very beginning. Namely, I need to find the right balance when synthesizing the recent scholarship on resistance, such as the work of Richard Blackett, Robert Churchill, Stanley Harrold and Kellie Carter-Jackson. While I have an abundance of material on the ramifications of that pressure–from resignations of incumbent commissioners to prospective appointees getting cold feet and backing out–these new primary sources might not resonate with readers as much if the campaign of resistance is not well-defined. At present, I am mulling adding something along the lines of a historiographical paragraph summarizing how the recent scholarly literature has unearthed new insights about the resistance to the law and the pressure which helped disrupt the law’s enforcement apparatus.

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.

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