T he critically acclaimed movie “12 Years a Slave” follows the nightmarish story of Solomon Northup, a free-born African-American violinist who, in 1841, was kidnapped by a pair of con men and sold at a slave market. His ordeal finally ended when Northup’s wife enlisted a lawyer friend to help him do something it’s hard to imagine a slave could have done at the time: sue his captors in court.
The case was covered as a novelty in the press, and Northup’s memoir, published in 1853, was an instant bestseller. His story shocked readers and helped galvanize the abolitionist movement.
But Northup wasn’t unique in trying to escape slavery through the legal system. Historians have long been aware of scattered lawsuits brought by slaves against their owners or captors, including in Massachusetts. Now, it is emerging that there were many more such suits than previously thought. Lea VanderVelde, a law professor at the University of Iowa, has spent much of the past decade uncovering about 300 cases unknown to historians. Her book about them, “Redemption Songs,” will be published next year by Oxford University Press.
The cases she found, mostly filed in Missouri, offer a portrait of anguish and of the persistence of individual Americans trying to escape an institution that denied they existed as full people. More broadly, VanderVelde’s project and others like it are part of an effort among historians to paint a much fuller picture of slavery and emancipation by including the voices of the people who were enslaved. While upper-middle-class white abolitionists and a tiny black elite pushed the political case, slaves themselves were also fighting for freedom, using whatever tools were available to them.
“We normally don’t think of slaves as a part of the abolition movement,” says Manisha Sinha, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose own book on the subject, “The Slave’s Cause: Abolition and the Origins of American Democracy,” will be published next year by Yale University Press. “But they very much were.”
A century and a half after its official demise, it’s commonplace to talk about slavery as a political issue, the cause of the Civil War, and the concern of congressmen and presidents. But this more intimate look at the past brings us back to the quotidian horror of “our peculiar institution,” and uncovers the immense creativity and persistence with which slaves fought this injustice, using any leverage they could.
I n New England, suits by enslaved African-Americans date back to Colonial times. The cases were frequently based on a slave’s claim of white or Native American parentage. But as revolutionary ideals took hold in the 1770s and ’80s, many enslaved plaintiffs began to mount more ambitious arguments that all people, black or white, had a “natural right” to freedom. That was the basis of a successful lawsuit involving a black man named Quock Walker, who won his freedom in 1781.
The man who considered himself Walker’s owner appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and in a 1783 trial the court issued a charge to the jury citing the new state constitution, which held that all men are born free—and setting a precedent that effectively ended slavery in the Commonwealth. In his notes on the case, Chief Justice William Cushing wrote, “Every subject is intitled to Liberty, & to have it guarded by the laws, as well as Life & property.... This being the Case, I think the Idea of Slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct & Constitution.”
The image of a slave taking his captors to court—never mind effectively changing the law—goes against our common perception of the antebellum era. “Every time I tell my students that slavery was abolished through the initiative of slaves in Massachusetts, they’re always stunned,” Sinha says.
It wasn’t only in relatively progressive New England that plaintiffs in freedom suits had a good chance of winning. Even in some Southern states, for those who could argue that their enslavement was against the law—because they had been kidnapped, for example—litigation could be a powerful weapon.
The newest body of freedom suits to come to light are those filed in Western states, especially Missouri. VanderVelde and her colleagues have been unearthing them by combing through boxes and shelves and haphazard stacks of paper, legal detritus that had been moldering unseen in dusty courthouse basements for a century and a half.
“There was absolutely no order to them,” recalls VanderVelde of her courthouse research. “They were still wrapped in this kind of faded shoelace stuff, which is the ‘red tape’ that binds these things. I was always afraid that I was going to find something absolutely amazing, and unless I took my camera to photograph it right away, it would crumble before I could read it.”Continued...