Manipulating Freedom: Liberty, Enslavement, and the Quest for Power in the Southwestern Borderlands

AHA Session 220
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Adam Rothman, Georgetown University
Adam Rothman, Georgetown University

Session Abstract

Manipulating Freedom:  Liberty, Enslavement, and the Quest for Power in the Southwestern Borderlands

            Attitudes and approaches to the issue of slavery evolved over time in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas in concert with the progression of imperial and American ideologies influencing each.  As in other areas of the Americas, free inhabitants of the southwestern borderlands were deeply involved in a struggle to maintain economic standing via the institution of slavery, as well as to preserve the social control that system provided.  For their own part, slaves exploited social and legal systems in order to wrest as much virtual, if not actual, freedom as possible.  In the center stood free people of color who manipulated variables such as family and social connections, wealth, and slave ownership in order to maintain their identity as people of free status.  Each of these groups possessed a level of power – social, economic, or otherwise – which they endeavored to enhance.

            The confluence of these various agendas resulted in the creation of a constantly changing system of laws and attitudes requiring perpetual adaptation by each of the three groups.  The three papers which compose this panel tell the stories of these factions, each of which tried to stay at least one step ahead of the other in terms of their efforts to keep or improve their own status.  Each presentation will examine a part of the complicated efforts to control or test the limits of freedom.  The first highlights the progression of laws informed by Spanish, British, and American ideologies in the Natchez District and the ways in which those laws and their results shaped the lives of people of color.  The second involves the unsuccessful petition for re-enslavement of a free woman of color in antebellum Louisiana.  The role of identity created by the manipulation of race, ethnicity, gender, wealth, and status played a significant part in this case as well as in the preservation of liberty among many free people of color in Louisiana and elsewhere.  The final paper interrogates the Texas re-enslavement law of 1858 and exposes the hidden fears and economic agenda of Texas legislators. Taken together, these papers address the importance of imperial and American ideologies regarding slavery and race as well as the innumerable ways in which various sectors of society manipulated the institution of slavery in order to suit their own ends.

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