First, I want to thank Karen, Dan, and Mitra for inviting me to guest blog this month. I have been an avid reader of LHB for years, but this month will be my first foray into blogging. I’m looking forward to the conversations it will (hopefully) generate!
My plan is to write a series of posts about the (long) process of writing my first book, In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America (UGA Press, 2017). I have chosen to loosely organize these posts around the theme of “balance” while including a mix of discussions of my personal experience (and hopefully a few lessons learned) and some of the content of my work. With a new year upon us, I am constantly reminded of how often I struggle with achieving any sort of balance in my work or my personal life. I write these posts about balance, not because I am any sort of expert on getting things right; in fact, I’d say the opposite is usually true. But I often think about, read about, and fumble along to achieve a rough kind of balance in the various areas of life (historian, teacher, mom of two). It is my hope that these posts will provide fodder for conversation about other strategies, advice, or challenges LHB readers have faced along the way to publication, full-time teaching, and tenure and promotion.
Today, though, I will simply introduce my book. It looks at the legal battles between enslaved people and their enslavers, using these court cases as a jumping off point for discussing local legal culture in the antebellum era. The structure follows the basic stages of a suit for freedom, beginning with the statutes that allowed for this type of legal case, and concluding with a chapter on the broader political context of freedom suits, most notably the role of Dred Scott in regional and national politics in the decade prior to the American Civil War.
The book has much to say to historians who are not specialists in legal history. In it, I explain how these suits actually worked and how various actors interacted with the law. But it is my hope that the book will also speak to legal scholars by investigating some of the nitty-gritty issues confronted by antebellum litigants. It features discussions of the attorneys and judges involved in freedom suits, the arguments used for suing (and defending suits) for freedom, as well as the legal consciousness of the enslaved plaintiffs who brought almost 300 freedom suits in the St. Louis Circuit Court from 1814-1860.
I conclude that enslaved persons in this urban environment had multiple avenues for learning about law and connecting with the arguments and the legal actors necessary to win freedom in court. But bringing suit was not without its risks; many of the plaintiffs faced the grim reality of physical punishment, sale away from the court’s jurisdiction, or countless other horrors as a result of their legal action.
The book includes some comparative context about freedom suits in other states, too. Although some of the discussions of comparative case law ended up on the cutting room floor, I read nearly 1,000 state supreme court opinions to provide context for the St. Louis story. One area where I do include broader data is in the appendix, which has a series of charts that indicate the arguments presented and rates of success for the St. Louis cases.
In my next post, I will explain more about how I came to this topic by balancing a number of interests of mine and incorporating the wise counsel of legal historians and archivists.