Thursday, November 19, 2009

ASLH: The Surrency Prize

[We've previously noted, via a posting of H-Law's report on the annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History, that Gautham Rao has won the ASLH's Surrency Prize. Here is the full report of the Surrency Prize Committee, chaired by Annette Gordon-Reed, New York Law School and Rutgers-Newark History.]

The Surrency Prize for 2008 is awarded to Gautham Rao for “The Federal Posse Comitatus Doctrine: Slavery, Compulsion, and Statecraft in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America.”

Historians have long acknowledged slavery’s pivotal role in shaping the contours of early American society. Recent scholarship, however, is just beginning to reveal the true depth and breadth of that influence, detailing very specifically the myriad ways in which the institution influenced conceptions of republicanism, democracy, citizenship, race and union. Now comes Gautham Rao’s “The Federal Posse Comitatus Doctrine: Slavery, Compulsion, and Statecraft in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America” to add another dimension to the story.

Gautham’s article stood out to committee members for the breadth of its research, the creativity of its argument, and the fluidity of its presentation. Rao explores the ways in which federal coercion under the posse comitatus doctrine in the 18th and 19th centuries continually forced white Americans to ponder the relationship between citizens and their government in a new nation still testing the boundaries between federal and state power. Very critically, this exploration took place in a world marked by chattel slavery. The institution gave white citizens a handy point of reference to help define what it meant to be free and what it meant to be enslaved. This was no mere abstraction. The history of the “posse comitatus doctrine”, Rao argues, “suggests a foundational relationship between slavery and the federal government’s techniques of coercing free individuals.” Rao deftly recounts the ways in which white southerners used the doctrine to protect their property interest in human beings, using the deputizing power of the Fugitive Slave Act to force often unwilling northerners to return people who had escaped from slavery. They then fought effectively against its application when the tables turned and the victorious north sought to use federal power to establish equality under the law for the freed men and women of the south. Rao’s piece provides fertile grounds for discussion of its argument, but also suggests further avenues of inquiry about the ways in which the historical uses of the posse comitatus doctrine still influence us today.

Hat tip: H-Law