My first book is out. It finally exists. I have to remind myself every morning that I cannot keep working on it. It is time to move on. So what’s next?
My next book is tentatively entitled Slavery’s Leviathan: Runaways, Fugitives, and the Slaveholders’ State, 1650-1865. As the title might suggest, it is chiefly about the creation and practices of laws aimed at recovering runaway and fugitive slaves in the American south from the colonial era through the Civil War. The project hinges on the basic fact that from the mid-seventeenth-century through the American Civil War, the labor and vigilance of elite slaveholders alone was far from sufficient to police and keep intact the coercive foundations of the master-slave relationship. Rather, as enslaved persons asserted their humanity in the acts of running away, achieving fugitive status, and demanding freedom, slaveholders and their political allies understood that they required the assistance of the white population in their communities—and in far-flung communities—to preserve the legal status of slaves. Put another way, to secure a political economy built upon the extraction of African-American labor power, slaveholders would need to extract the labor power of able-bodied free white men to prevent and police runaways and fugitives. Slaves’ pursuit of humanity and freedom thus made slaveholders constitute and dependent upon public power, and necessitated the construction of a state capable of demanding and securing the labor power of white men.
So a baseline assumption for me is that the construction of this state was necessary because of the actions of the enslaved. As they contested the terms of their enslavement through any number of actions but especially through taking flight, and as they crossed jurisdictional borders, they triggered a series of crises. At the simplest level they threatened to disrupt some part of the labor process and its organization. By taking flight, they also posed a living challenge to the very legal conditions of their enslavement. For planters and their allies, the runaway slave also invoked the specter of an armed insurrection—a specter that burned ever brighter after the events, real and imagined, of the Haitian Revolution, as several scholars have established (most recently by Alec Dun in his outstanding Dangerous Neighbors: Makingthe Haitian Revolution in Early America). None of this is my discovery, of course. Most all of these dimensions of the material, historical, and moral problem of the runaway slave have been discussed masterfully by legions of scholars, especially John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger in Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, and Rebecca Scott and Jean Hebrard in FreedomPapers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation.
Because of the enormity and strength of the literature on the enslaved and their journeys through space and time, my book will be less about the enslaved and more about the enslavers. We’ve come a long way from the times when slaveowners were understood to be inherently opposed to the use of state power simply because they opposed the federal government’s regulatory power. I read Walter Johnson’s monumental River of DarkDreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, for instance, to be about how plantation owners in the Mississippi Valley forged a public power that was suitable to the scope of their enterprises. Put another way, it required an enormous release of capital and energy to spatially remake an entire region into a “carceral landscape.” Likewise, Sally Hadden’s excellent book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas illustrates the limits and possibilities of slaveowners’ public powers in deploying groups of white men for the specific legal purpose of apprehending runaway and fugitive slaves. Jordan Grant, an American University doctoral student in history, is now hard at work on a remarkable dissertation that explains the emergence of the “slave catcher” in nineteenth-century America.
All of the layers of governance of that became required the assistance of the white populations that lived adjacent to or nearby plantations or urban areas with large slave populations. Going back to the seventeenth century, statutes aiming to curb runaway slaves tried to provide incentives for white residents of slave societies to assist in preventing, apprehending, and renditioning runaway slaves. Consider for instance how Maryland’s 1676 “Act Relateing [sic] to Servants and Slaves” aiming to police “Serants Runawayes” offered tobacco to locals and those in other colonies to “take upp such servants or Runnawayes.” Consider, too, the Fugitive Slave Clause of the United States Constitution: “If any Person bound to service or labor in any of the United States shall escape into another State, He or She shall not be discharged from such service or labor but shall be delivered up to the person justly claiming their service or labor.” In no less than the Constitution, then, the phrase “shall be delivered up to the person justly claiming their service or labor” suggests the intervention of people other than the solicitous slaveowner. In the early republic, southern states would enact numerous laws and that continued to grant awards of cash or commodities to whites that assisted in giving life to anti-runaway legislation while also criminalizing the acts of aiding or abetting runaways.
I believe that the legal institution at the heart of this project is known as the posse comitatus, or the “power of the county,” which dated back to early modern English common law, and which referred to the uncompensated, obligatory requirement that able-bodied males serve as deputies to constables or other officers when called upon to serve. As I have argued in an early exploration of this project some years ago, the posse comitatus migrated to North America in the seventeenth-century and became an important part of the framework of law enforcement in the American colonies and states through legislation that sought to prevent riots. But a key aspect of the posse comitatus was that it was compulsory. At least as a legal concept, a white, able-bodied male could not say no to the demands of the law. This was why it proved so important as a foundation for the legal regime that slaveholders built to police runaways: it was always there and required obedience at all times. Indeed, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 invoked the specific language of the posse comitatus as the south pushed this vision of citizenship upon the nation.
Since I recently completed National Duties, I am only just beginning to dive in to the research and writing of this book. Right now I envision that it will span the eighteenth century through the Civil War. I am planning chapters that deal with the posse comitatus in the law of slavery, the forging of moral obedience as a key aspect of white southern citizenship, and studies of the posse in practice: in the Kentucky-Ohio borderlands, in ports active in the slave trade, in northern states and abroad, and during the Civil War. I am extremely fortunate that legal historians and others have written so much outstanding scholarship on topics that touch on the issues that constitute the spine of this project. Indeed the field has changed so drastically since I began thinking about these issues in graduate school that I am still trying to cobble together a working bibliography that does justice to these growing historiographies. As I continue to work on the project, I hope to check back in with you through the LHB and other venues to let you know where my ideas and research have gone.
In the meantime, I want to give a heartfelt thanks to the editors of the LHB—Dan Ernst, Mitra Sharafi, and Karen Tani—for inviting me to share my work with you. I also want to thank the incredible readers of the blog who have been so generous with their time in reading and responding to my posts. I’ve learned so much and continue to be amazed at the amazing community of collegial and driven scholars that surround the blog. So thanks again, everyone!