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.
Mark W. Deets
Since the founding of the United States of America, coinciding with the height of the Atlantic slave trade, U.S. officials have based their relations with West Africa primarily on economic interests. Initially, these interests were established on the backs of slaves, as the Southern plantation economy quickly vaulted the United States to prominence in the Atlantic world. After the U.S. abolition of the slave trade in 1808, however, American relations with West Africa focused on the establishment of the American colony of Liberia as a place of “return” for formerly enslaved persons. Following the turn to “legitimate commerce” in the Atlantic and the U.S. Civil War, the United States largely withdrew from large-scale interaction with West Africa. Liberia remained the notable exception, where prominent Pan-African leaders like Edward Blyden, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey helped foster cultural and intellectual ties between West Africa and the Diaspora in the early 1900s. These ties to Liberia were deepened in the 1920s when Firestone Rubber Corporation of Akron, Ohio established a long-term lease to harvest rubber. World War II marked a significant increase in American presence and influence in West Africa. Still focused on Liberia, the war years saw the construction of infrastructure that would prove essential to Allied war efforts and to American security interests during the Cold War. After 1945, the United States competed with the Soviet Union in West Africa for influence and access to important economic and national security resources as African nations ejected colonial regimes across most of the continent. West African independence quickly demonstrated a turn from nationalism to ethnic nationalism, as civil wars engulfed several countries in the postcolonial, and particularly the post-Cold War, era. After a decade of withdrawal, American interest in West Africa revived with the need for alternative sources of petroleum and concerns about transnational terrorism following the attacks of September 11, 2001.