Hon. Ezekiel Forman Chambers (b. 1788 - d. 1867)
MSA SC 5496-34613
Property Owner, Kent County , Maryland
Many of the Eastern Shore's most prominent residents, even those who ascended to national office, were slaveholders and were prepared to passionately defend the institution. Ezekiel Forman Chambers, of Chestertown in Kent County, was not unlike his peers in this regard. A practicing lawyer since 1809, Chambers distinguished himself as a public official in various military and judicial roles. At this time, the number of free blacks in Maryland was increasing steadily, and almost equaled the number of individuals who remained enslaved. The former population came to be seen as an evil class that threatened the continued existence of slavery, particularly on the Eastern Shore. Slave escapes continued to occur at an alarming rate into the middle of the century, causing the state government and private citizens to take action. Judge Chambers was also one of the many planters who lost his bondsmen to flight during that time period, and used various methods to protect the rights of Maryland slaveholders.
Though census records indicate that he owned no more than one slave until 1830, it is likely that he had such property but did not record it.1 By 1840, Chambers' enslaved work force had inexplicably jumped to twelve African-Americans.2 James L. Bowers would later claim that his father Benjamin Chambers had been a member of the Kent County Abolition Society, which obviously would have frowned upon slaveholding in its midst.3 However, the elder's 1816 inventory and census records belie this contention. As his father's executor, Ezekiel may have ultimately assumed responsibility for some of the thirteen slaves listed.4 Ezekiel Forman also had at least two transactions recorded in the county chattel records during that time, detailing slave purchases and sales.5 Documentation of his property holdings fluctuated throughout the early to mid 19th century. However, there could be no question about where Chambers stood on the issue of slavery.
Chambers was elected by the Maryland Legislature to fill Colonel Edward Lloyd's seat in the United States Senate in 1826. Just weeks before the official appointment, State Senate President William R. Stuart sent him and two other lawyers to New Jersey. Their expressed role was to "confer with the Legislature of New Jersey and with the Legislatures of Delaware and Pennsylvania upon the measures best calculated to prevent the absconding of slaves from Maryland and to facilitate their recovery by their owners."6 Though the exact details of the negotiations were not published, the meeting did indeed result in the passage of a supplement to that state's existing "act concerning slaves" later that year. This statute allowed for alleged owners to bring their case to a local law officer, who would then be empowered "to arrest and seize the said fugitive." The claimant would also be required to satisfactorily describe the assailant, who would have to opportunity to defend him/herself.7 Despite the numerous legal stipulations, the quick passage of such a law was likely considered a success for Judge Chambers and his colleagues. However, Pennsylvania and New Jersey continued to be popular destinations for Maryland freedom seekers into the 1840's.
Several high-profile cases contributed to the legal discussion that ultimately led to the passage of a federal Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In his role as a judge in the Maryland Court of Appeals, Ezekiel Chambers actually represented the state in one of these land-mark cases, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, involving Edward Prigg's effort to retrieve alleged fugitives across the Mason-Dixon line.8 The 1842 Supreme Court sided with Maryland slaveholders' right to their property, freeing the Harford County man from any criminal conviction.9 This set the precedent for future legislation, as well as Judge Chambers' role as a major figure in the political debates on the issue.
According to the 1850 Slave Schedule for Kent County, Chambers was only in possession of seven individuals. At least one man had fled from his property during the previous year.10 The ironically named David Freeman is noted in the state's pardon record, having been charged with "the offense of running away from his said master."11 His case was never fully prosecuted, but only because Chambers intended to sell him out the state, an increasingly common fate of rebellious African-Americans. Though there is no official record of this transaction, the seller likely garnered a substantial profit because of the great demand for labor in cotton plantations of the Deep South. That incident likely played no small role in Chambers' attitude toward the 1850 Maryland Constitutional Reform Convention, in which he represented Kent County's interests. He was noted for having strongly advocated for the Fugitive Slave law, which would strengthen the ability of property holders to retrieve their chattel in other states. As with most white commentators of the time, he assigned little responsibility to enslaved African-Americans, instead blaming a "spirit of fanaticism" for threatening the institution. Chambers submitted five resolutions on behalf of the committee, further promoting the defense of property rights as the "primary duty" of the general government.12
The judge took his activism to the ground level with his involvement in the expulsion of James L. Bowers in 1858. Long suspected of abolitionist activities in Kent County, Bowers finally faced the wrath of the community after "a plan of escape was detected which was defeated while in progress." According to Chambers "Bowers was supposed to be connected with this."13 The judge was called to chair an impromptu committee of local slaveholders, attempting to stem the tide of slave escapes then plaguing the Eastern Shore. The courts had not been able to convict Bowers because the only alleged witnesses to his involvement were African-Americans, who were not allowed to testify against white men by state law. Therefore, Chambers determined that the mob was fully justified in tarring and feathering the man, before chasing him out of town. He and other participants felt that definitive action needed to be taken against such men, who were "constantly endangering and impairing" the prosperity of the community.14 Bowers would go so far as to directly implicate Chambers in the plan to subject him to mob law, which the judge never denied. Eastern Shore whites were prepared to go to extreme lengths to keep their human property within state lines, still convinced that outside forces were the primary cause of the recent exodus.
Judge Chambers soon experienced another property loss, who could personally attest to her motivations. Harriet Fuller fled from his Chestertown residence in 1859. She and her husband Cornelius passed through William Still's Philadelphia office on their way north, briefly relating their experience. Harriet would say of Chambers that, "He is no man for freedom, bless you ... he would hire them [slaves] to any kind of a master, if he half killed you." They were forced to leave a thirteen year old daughter Kitty, also likely enslaved by Harriet's former owner.15 Indeed, on the 1860 Federal Slave Schedule, Judge Chambers had a fourteen year old female on two of his Kent County properties.16 In addition to the Fullers' story, Still's published account of his Underground Railroad activity included another indirect reference to Chambers. There was another Chestertown fugitive, William Thomas Freeman, who also made it at least as far as Pennsylvania in 1855. Interestingly, he chose to go by the alias "Ezekiel Chambers," though there is no evidence that his enslavement was related to the judge.17 Escaping blacks would often adopt new names, and choosing those of prominent white citizens was not uncommon.
Between three local properties, Ezekiel F. Chambers owned a total of 54 African-Americans according to the 1860 Census, confirming Harriet Fuller's contention that "he owned more slaves than any other man in that part of the country."18 His net worth was also recorded as $137,000 that year.19 These facts go a long way to explaining why he was such a vehement defender of the southern institution. Chambers, who was also president of his alma mater Washington College, may have been the wealthiest resident of Kent County at the time. His economic and political statures went hand in hand, ensuring that he would retain a leading role amongst Maryland slaveholders. Chambers was elected president of the Southern Rights Convention of Maryland, which met in Baltimore in February 1861. Strangely, his seven page address does not mention slavery or race relations once.20 He would be much more forthright about the issues as Maryland grappled with the future of the institution during its 1864 Constitutional Convention.
As a Kent County delegate, he became a central figure in the lengthy debates that took place from April to September that year. Judge Chambers was quite vocal and long-winded, during the proceedings, in which he utilized an interesting mixture of legal and religious arguments. One of his earliest contentions was that, "the negro is considered in the double character of property and person."21 This was an essential precedent for the slaveholding populace of Maryland, and other states. Chambers would repeatedly refer to the property status of enslaved blacks to prove the injustice of emancipation without compensation to the former owners. He also recognized another disadvantage that would arise from the end of slavery in counties like his own. Chambers argued that newly freed blacks should count toward political representation in the state government, just as the foreign-born population did in Baltimore City. In this situation, he claimed "not only have our slaves been taken from us ... but we are now to be punished for ever having held them as property."22Chambers and his anti-slavery adversaries at the convention also spent a good deal of time debating the Bible's view of slavery. He was quite forceful in stating that there was nothing sinful or immoral about a Christian Marylander owning other humans. According to Chambers, the only people who would consider slaveholding evil were those "whose habits and thoughts and education have been derived from without the State."23 He did not directly refer to any other delegate, but the comment was likely intended to question the state pride of men who opposed the institution. Chambers was quite verbose in disputing the biblical interpretation of Johns Berry and Henry Stockbridge, representatives from Baltimore. The debate was particularly focused upon the story of Onesimus, allegedly a runaway slave whom an imprisoned Paul returned to his master, after having converted the man to Christianity. Berry contended that "Paul did not send him back as a slave, but as a Christian brother," to be treated as such.24
Ezekiel F. Chambers death in 1867 was accompanied by lengthy obituaries in the local media, befitting a man of such great professional accomplishments. His debating skills were praised as "eminently skillful, forcible and ready," and "perhaps few excelled him in oral controversy." Among his notable achievements, the Baltimore Sun did mention Chambers' role in the Prigg case and negotiations with Pennsylvania regarding their fugitive slave laws, "the result of which was for the time satisfactory to Maryland."33 There was no further mention of his significance in the state's various struggles over the institution. According to another account, the judge had been "attacked with violent pain in the stomach, of which he was finally relieved, and laid down to sleep," just short of his 79th birthday.34
1. Ancestry.com. 1810 - 1830 United States Federal Census, Kent County.2. Ancestry.com. 1840 United States Federal Census. Kent County, District 2, pp. 51-2.
Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2012.
Return to Ezekiel F. Chambers' Introductory Page
Link to Legislative Bio
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