Politics Big and Small: African Americans, Law, and the Negotiation of Slavery and Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century American South
In keeping with the theme of the 129th Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, “History and the Other Disciplines,” this panel combines socio-legal and historical methods and theory to investigate the intersection between free and enslaved African Americans, the law, and local, national, and international politics in the nineteenth century. The papers in this panel combine legal sources such as trial court records, statutes, and treatises with extra-legal sources such as church records, diplomatic records, and personal papers in order to explore the ways in which slaves and free blacks in nineteenth-century South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri participated in and shaped legal and political culture in their communities and beyond. In particular, these papers examine African Americans’ use of the law to influence both the informal politics in their communities as well as national, and even international, political trends and debates. Taken together, these papers demonstrate the ways in which marginalized people could influence the legal and political culture in their communities, despite their exclusion from formal law and politics.
In recent years, scholars of both law and history have paid increasing attention to various features of African Americans’ engagements with the law. Indeed, as the most recent scholarship has demonstrated, African Americans were important players in the legal system—as participants in community governance, as litigants in their own interests, and as creators of legal culture. This panel adds to these insights by examining how, in three specific contexts, African Americans’ interactions with the legal system shaped local, regional, and national political trends. Kimberly Welch’s paper examines the ways in which free blacks’ and slaves’ lawsuits against whites in disputes over property disrupted the balance of power in the antebellum Natchez district and served as a mechanism for exerting informal political power in a society that denied African Americans access to formal political arenas. Michael Schoeppner’s paper illustrates that the complex questions of race and legal status were not confined within the borders of particular nations or empires, but were debated between them as well. British Consuls and local law enforcement officers negotiated citizenship, race, and rights in the port cities of the antebellum South, and the contents and results of these negotiations reveal the importance of looking beyond the courts in reconstructing the legal history of race. Kelly Kennington’s paper uses the local lens of St. Louis’s Circuit Court to examine how enslaved individuals both shaped and were shaped by the politics of slavery during the turbulent 1840s and 1850s. Although state and national trends shifted after 1845 to increase restrictions on African Americans, slave and free, St. Louis diverged from this pattern. Taken together, the papers on this panel merge the disciplines of law and history to investigate how African Americans on the ground influenced broader political patterns at the local, regional, and national levels.