THE FUGITIVE SLAVE PROBLEM,
1850 TO 1864
THE BILL SIGNED by President Millard Fillmore on September 18, 1850, was designated an amendment supplementary to the act of 1793. Essentially, it expanded federal power over the interstate rendition of fugitive slaves at the expense of state power to intervene in the process. The central figure in the new system was to be the commissioner, an officer appointed by a United States circuit judge and having “concurrent jurisdiction” with federal judges in the administration of the statute. 1 A commissioner could in turn appoint “one or more suitable persons” to execute his warrants, and he or any such subordinate had the authority to summon the aid of bystanders as a posse comitatus. In addition, federal marshals and their deputies were drawn explicitly into the work of enforcement and made financially liable for nonexecution of warrants and the escape of fugitives from their custody.
A pursuing slave owner or his agent could himself seize an alleged fugitive or else obtain a warrant for his arrest by a federal officer. In either case, the captive was to be brought before a commissioner or federal judge, who would conduct a summary hearing and, if the claimant's ex parte evidence proved satisfactory, issue a certificate of removal. Testimony from the prisoner was expressly barred, and the certificate was declared to be “conclusive, ” making its holder immune to “molestation” by court processes of any kind. Thus anyone taken into custody as a fugitive slave was cut off from the traditional legal resorts of an accused person. 2 As for extralegal action in his behalf, the new law made it more hazardous by increasing financial penalties and adding the threat of imprisonment. 3 Furthermore, if