A new database of lawsuits by enslaved people seeking their freedom promises new insights into enslavement and the quest for freedom. Researchers at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have constructed a database containing more than 500 cases from the 1820s and 1830s.
The cases were brought to the Circuit Court of Washington, DC, Maryland state courts, and to the Supreme Court. Records reveal that the institution of slavery was contested from its inception and provides innumerable insights into the lived experience of enslaved people.
Such suits for freedom reveal a long history of Black opposition to slavery in the courts. One of the most recognizable and well-known suits for freedom is the 1857 case of Dred Scott vs. Sandford, also known as the Dred Scott decision; Scott sued his enslaver by arguing that his transport into free states negated his enslaved status. The Supreme Court’s rejection of the suit served as the pretext for the Civil War. Yet it appears that suits of this type were rather commonplace; Black participation in lawsuits allowed participants to gain legal knowledge and a deep understanding of how the laws were formulated to uphold the system of slavery. “The suits in Washington, DC…raised questions about the constitutional and legal legitimacy of slavery, and by extension, affected slavery and law in Maryland, Virginia, and all of the federal territories,” the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education noted.
In fact, the participants were some of the most prominent figures in the nation’s life. The case of Charlotte Dupuy, who petitioned the court to free her family in 1829, is one such example. Her enslaver was none other than Henry Clay, known as the “Great Compromiser,” who served as speaker of the House of Representatives, was a Senator from Kentucky, and the ninth secretary of state. Dupuy eventually lost her case, refused to return to Kentucky and was jailed. Later, Clay offered a deed of manumission to Dupuy and her family. Historians have cited this gesture as evidence of Clay’s benevolence, but records tell a different story. Clay did so under extreme pressure and with great reluctance, US News and World Report noted.
The project also reveals the involvement of another prominent American who has been the subject of considerable controversy: Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key’s anthem has been widely criticized for its pro-slavery lyrics and has sparked several years of opposition and organized protest by NFL star Colin Kaepernick. Key represented more than 100 enslaved persons in suits against their enslavers before becoming a defender of the institution. He came to believe that enslaved persons, even after manumission, should not be granted freedom.
The database is aptly titled “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, DC, Family and Law.” The project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The cases outlined in the new database show that slavery impacted all facets of American society. Beyond the enslaved and the people who kept them in bondage, slavery affected lawyers, judges, jurors, and the legal system, writ large.
About the Author
Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora and the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.