Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South by Loren Schweninger, Oxford University Press, US $39.95, Pp 440, October 2018, ISBN 978-0190664282
Struggle for freedom for the enslaved in the United States has been long and hard. It was a multi-pronged struggle, fought politically as well as legally. Many of us are familiar with Dred Scot and his famous Supreme Court case, but there were thousands of other similar cases we never hear of. In Appealing for Liberty, Loren Schweninger tells the story of American slaves’ legal war for freedom. Drawing from more than 2,000 suits and the testimonies of more than 4,000 plaintiffs from the Revolutionary era to the Civil War, Loren Schweninger has written a fascinating history of the war on slavery. The petitions, evidence, and testimony presented in the courts bring the lives of the slaves as well as the slave-owning southern society sharply into focus. The pain, suffering, fears, and trepidations of the plaintiffs are depicted in horrifying details.
In Appealing for Liberty, Loren Schweninger says that other slave societies in the Americas allowed bondservants to pursue their freedom through use of the law and tradition, but only in the slave society of the United States South during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could blacks-in-bondage become plaintiffs with their lawyers against slave owners in freedom suits. The laws in southern states sometimes required slaves and their lawyers either to present preliminary requests for permission to sue or to submit pretrial summaries of the arguments that they would employ to challenge the legitimacy of their enslavement. Some states, particularly in the Lower South also obliged the plaintiffs to engage a responsible white person as a next friend, or guardian, or tutor to accompany them into court and file suit on their behalf, especially if they were minors. Such cases amounted to only a small fraction of the total number of freedom suits, and even in these cases, the slaves were referred to as plaintiffs and appeals went to the Appellate Courts under the names of those in bondage.
Loren Schweninger says that the development of chancery, or equity, courts which expanded substantially during this period in the United States, further facilitated the legal process in such suits, on occasion even in the Lower South. In some instances, free blacks and, more rarely, slaves were allowed to provide testimony for the court, usually in the form of depositions. The law, too, covered causes for suit other than the benevolence of slave-owners who wished to manumit designated slaves. They accorded the right to file freedom suits to the descendants of free women of color, free white women, and Native American women as well as slaves who had lived in free states or territories or visited a free country or been illegally imported into a slave state. Term slaves who had fully served the time specified by their master and illegally held free blacks could also sue for their freedom. Loren Schweninger argues, as a consequence, African Americans found themselves subject to a legal system that could be as harsh as it could be just and equitable. That black plaintiffs, even though their numbers were small, achieved their freedom through due process in the courts attests to the distinctive legal system that evolved in the US South in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War.
The numerous state laws controlling the lives of slaves changed and evolved with the passage of time. Loren Schweninger says that the changes could be seen in the primary causes for filing suits, from heritage-based white and Indian ancestry filings during the early period to a large portion of illegally held free blacks and residency cases in the middle and late periods. The cases involving term slaves during the early period represented only a small fraction compared with those during the middle and late periods, while the cases involving illegal importation represented nearly twice as many during the early during the early period as the other two periods combined. Yet the proportion of freedom suits in each time period remained relatively constant over time. The large rice, cotton, and sugar plantations working huge gangs of slaves, and the growing sentiments of slave-owners toward secession, created an economic and political environment hostile to freedom. Yet even in the Lower South, following the Dead Scott decision, a few freedom suits found their way on to court dockets.
Appealing for Liberty is an important addition to the already existing books on the history of slavery in the United States. It is an amazing work of legal and historical scholarship that shines a light on the little-explored African Americans’ legal struggle for freedom and the dark corners of our history. It provides a deep insight into the African slaves’ legal war for freedom in the courtrooms. With her unmatchable scholarly credentials and a keen eye for detail, Loren Schweninger shows how important legal struggle was for the freedom of slaves. Appealing for Liberty is a meticulously researched work of scholarship that is possibly the best book on the subject. It should be of interest to even lay readers.