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The ordeal of Edward Greeley Loring: Fugitive slavery, judicial reform, and the politics of law in 1850s Massachusetts

Kevin Lee Gilbert, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In 1854, acting as a federal commissioner under the Fugitive Slave Law, Suffolk County probate judge Edward Greeley Loring returned the alleged runaway Anthony Burns to slavery. In protest, antislavery activists petitioned legislators to exercise a little-used power to demand that the next governor remove Loring from state office. For three years, Know-Nothing governor Henry J. Gardner refused to do so, and Republican Nathaniel P. Banks removed the judge in 1858 with considerable reluctance. For both men, and for their parties, Loring's ordeal had ideological significance beyond his personal fate. This dissertation traces this significance to a lasting debate between conservatives and radical reformers over the principle of judicial independence from popular influences. Advocacy of elections for judges and other reforms went back to the Jeffersonian era, but antislavery activists took up the theme to protest judicial submission to the 1850 fugitive law. They joined earlier critics who condemned the state judiciary as a self-serving clique. Loring, who owed his position to family, social, and political ties, made an exemplary villain despite his efforts to show objective fairness during the Burns trial. Radicals demanded his removal in the name of popular moral sovereignty, while conservatives defended him in the interest of judicial independence. The radical implications of removal were somewhat muted by the Personal Liberty Law of 1855, which lent the campaign some statutory authority. The states-rights aspect of the controversy, however, remained divisive even after Republican victories made the judge's fall a reasonable certainty. The final debates over Loring in 1858 exposed a continuing conflict between conservatives and radicals within the Republican party that had already hindered its early development. Loring's story as a whole illustrates the enduring significance of Jackson-era reform politics beyond the acknowledged demise of the Jacksonian party system.

Subject Area

American history|Law|Black history

Recommended Citation

Gilbert, Kevin Lee, "The ordeal of Edward Greeley Loring: Fugitive slavery, judicial reform, and the politics of law in 1850s Massachusetts" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9721454.