Meeker photo

George W. Meeker (Chicago History Museum)

George W. Meeker (1819-1856)


TENURE:  10/1850 – 1/29/1855




Moses Johnson Case (1851) – 1 released

  • The crux of the case revolved around Section 10 of the law, which required the claimant to present an affidavit from their home county containing a description of the fugitive. The affidavit provided described Moses Johnson, the alleged fugitive, as “being of copper color,” but Commissioner Meeker found Johnson to be “black,” and accordingly released him. During the hearing, “several specimens of copper, of different hues, were presented as a test of the propriety of the description in the record as to color.” [1851-06-19 Palmyra MO Weekly Whig]
  • The hearing took place on the third floor of the Salon ( or “Saloon”) Building at 123 Lake Street in Chicago, which was home to the U.S. Circuit and District Courts of Illinois. One account later described that the hall “was densely packed when the decision was made, the crowd extending, in solid mass, from the court-room, in the third story, which was filled, through the halls and stairways to the street below.” [Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago (Chicago: Wilson & St. Clair, 1868), 539-540]
  • The Chicago Democrat heaped praise upon Meeker. “He saved a human being from the clutches of kidnappers, whom the law placed entirely in his power. By doing differently, he might have won plaudits from the immense slave-holding aristocracy of the South, and from the corrupt politicians of the North….” Noting that Meeker “met the crisis like a philanthropist,” the Democrat asserted that “thousands upon thousands of the oppressed and their friends invoke blessings upon his head.” [1851-06-07 Chicago Weekly Democrat]
  • The Western Citizen, an abolitionist serial based in Chicago, was similarly effusive, expressing its “respect and confidence” to Meeker, “who dared to do his duty against the power of a corrupt administration, and powerful corrupt influences, that demand a human sacrifice on the alter of union, to a false philosophy of law and order, and for self-political agrandisement.” Commenting on the crowd, the paper reported that “the Court room was filled to a perfect jam, and the stair-ways and passages to the room filled up by a mass of quiet, but deeply interested and determined men. Nine-tenths of them were the friends of the slave…. The Commissioner occupied about one hour in giving his decision…. When the word discharged was uttered, the freed man was sent over the heads of the crowd, and in a moment was out of the hall and down the stairs into the street, followed by shouts and cheers, and driven off on a dray by a few colored friends to a place of safety.” [1851-06-10 Chicago Western Citizen]
  • A recollected account of the Moses Johnson Case claimed that “his acquittal was largely due to the unpopularity of the law and unwillingness of the bench, bar and people of Chicago to act as negro hunters for southern slave holders. Among other obstacles thrown in the way of the owner’s representatives in this case, was the demand that they should prove by other than heresay testimony that Missouri was a slave state.” Yet the author of the account intimated that even had Meeker ruled against Johnson, the Missouri claimant “would have been no nearer getting possession of his chattel, as the ‘underground railroad’ was at that time in active operation here.” [History of Chicago, Illinois (New York: Munsell & Co., 1895), 2:193, WEB]


  • Shortly after Meeker’s appointment in October 1850, Edwin C. Larned denounced the law and harangued Meeker’s acceptance of the commission in a speech at the Chicago city hall. He mocked the supposed justice in the certificate of removal, noting that while it might bear “the signature of Mr. George Worthington Meeker, or any other Commissioner’s signature” and his decision “set forth in due form and proper legal phraseology,” such a document flew in the face of African Americans’ personal liberties and most basic rights. [Edwin C. Larned, The New Fugitive Slave Law: Speech of Edwin C. Larned, Esq., At the City Hall in the City of Chicago, On the Evening of Oct. 25th, 1850, in Reply to Hon. S.A. Douglas (Chicago: Democrat Office, 1850), 9-10]
  • Meeker resigned in January 1855, citing his unwillingness to “act in enforcing the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law.” [1855-02-23 Boston Liberator]
  • Responding to Meeker’s resignation, a bitter New Orleans paper seethed, “He can be spared.” [1855-02-18 New Orleans Times Picayune]