Courts and legislatures in colonial America and the early American republic developed and refined a power to compel civilians to assist peace and law enforcement officers in arresting wrongdoers, keeping the peace, and other matters of law enforcement. This power to command civilian cooperation was known as the posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Rooted in early modern English countryside law enforcement, the posse comitatus became an important police institution in 18th- and 19th-century America. The posse comitatus was typically composed of able-bodied white male civilians who were temporarily deputized to aid a sheriff or constable. But if this “power of the county” was insufficient, law enforcement officers were often authorized to call on the military to serve as the posse comitatus.
The posse comitatus proved particularly important in buttressing slavery in the American South. Slaveholders pushed for and especially benefited from laws that required citizens to assist in the recapture of local runaway slaves and fugitive slaves who crossed into states without slavery. Though slave patrols were rooted in the posse comitatus, the posse comitatus originated as a compulsory and noncompensated institution. Slaveholders in the American South later added financial incentives for those who acted in the place of a posse to recapture slaves on the run from their owners.
The widespread use of the posse comitatus in southern slave law became part of the national discussion about slavery during the early American republic as national lawmakers contemplated how to deal with the problem of fugitive slaves who fled to free states. This dialogue culminated with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which the US Congress authorized officials to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus” and declared that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” During Reconstruction, the Radical Republican Congress used the posse comitatus to enforce laws that targeted conquered Confederates. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states pushed Congress to create what would come to be known as the “Posse Comitatus Act,” which prohibited the use of federal military forces for law enforcement. The history of the posse comitatus in early America is thus best understood as a story about and an example of the centralization of government authority and its ramifications.
Stephen P. Randolph
Best known as Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state during the Civil War, William Henry Seward conducted full careers as a statesman, politician, and visionary of America’s future, both before and after that traumatic conflict. His greatest legacy, however, lay in his service as the secretary of state, leading the diplomatic effort to prevent European intervention in the conflict. His success in that effort marked the margin between the salvation and the destruction of the Union. Beyond his role as diplomat, Seward’s signature qualities of energy, optimism, ambition, and opportunism enabled him to assume a role in the Lincoln administration extending well beyond his diplomatic role as the secretary of state. Those same qualities secured a close working relationship with the president as Seward overcame a rocky first few weeks in office to become Lincoln’s confidant and sounding board.
Seward’s career in politics stretched from the 1830s until 1869. Through that time, he maintained a vision of a United States of America built on opportunity and free labor, powered by government’s active role in internal improvement and education. He foresaw a nation fated to expand across the continent and overseas, with expansion occurring peacefully as a result of American industrial and economic strength and its model of government. During his second term as secretary of state, under the Johnson administration, Seward attempted a series of territorial acquisitions in the Caribbean, the Pacific, and on the North American continent. The state of the post-war nation and its fractious politics precluded success in most of these attempts, but Seward was successful in negotiating and securing Congressional ratification of the purchase of Alaska in 1867. In addition, Seward pursued a series of policies establishing paths followed later by US diplomats, including the open door in China and the acquisition of Hawaii and US naval bases in the Caribbean.