Friday, October 19, 2018

Booknotes: Appealing for Liberty

New Arrival:
Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South by Loren Schweninger (Oxford UP, 2018).

"(D)rawing from more than 2,000 suits and from the testimony of more than 4,000 plaintiffs from the Revolutionary era to the Civil War," Loren Schweninger's Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South offers readers the "first comprehensive study" of the use of courtrooms all across the country by slaves seeking legal release from bondage. "Through the petitions, evidence, and testimony introduced in these court proceedings, the lives of the enslaved come sharply and poignantly into focus, as do many other aspects of southern society such as the efforts to preserve and re-unite black families. This book depicts in graphic terms, the pain, suffering, fears, and trepidations of the plaintiffs while discussing the legal system lawyers, judges, juries, and testimony that made judgments on their 'causes,' as the suits were often called."

Slaves and their legal representatives justified their lawsuits on a number of different grounds. They "brought suits claiming they had been freed in wills and deeds, were born of free mothers, were descendants of free white women or Indian women; they charged that they were illegally imported to some states or were residents of the free states and territories. Those who testified on their behalf, usually against leaders of their communities, were generally white. So too were the lawyers who took these cases, many of them men of prominence, such as Francis Scott Key. More often than not, these men were slave owners themselves—complicating our understanding of race relations in the antebellum period."

As one might guess, the plaintiffs were not always successful, and most cases did not reach any kind of national consciousness on the level of Dred Scott. "Indeed, most of the cases ended at the county, circuit, or district court level of various southern states. Yet the narratives of both those who gained their freedom and those who failed to do so, and the issues their suits raised, shed a bold and timely light on the history of race and liberty in the 'land of the free.'"

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