Slavery, Freedom, and the Law in the Atlantic World: A Brief History with Documents, Sue Peabody and Keila Grinberg, Bedford/St. Martin's, 224 pp., illustrations, bibliography, chronology, index, 2007, $15.95.
In an introductory essay of 28 pages, the authors set 46 documents (1685-1888) into the context of the unfolding history of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World of Europe, Africa and the Americas. Political traditions, economic pressures, religious settings and social environments are adequately described regarding the continents. Slavery and freedom in the French Atlantic and the Haitian Revolution, the British Atlantic and the United States, the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic and the Latin American continent.
How did legal institutions of the nations generate and mediate freedom? In the dynamic centuries from the 1600s to the 1800s, freedom and revolution, Independence and slavery were concepts and conduct that conceived American slavery. The authors point out that in the era of North American colonization Britain had no laws regarding slavery because slavery on the island had died out as a legal category within English law. It was because of this that in the 1772 Somerset decision the English bar declared a slave free; no laws existed and the English tradition was that the English were a free people. Lord Chief Justice Mansfield ruled that a slave brought into Great Britain could not be held in bondage because there were no codes of law, oral or written, that created or supported slavery in Britain.
The authors outline the historiography of the question: Why did the world's biggest slave trader abolish an institution that was a major source of wealth for the empire. Quickly covering five major historians' views, the introductory essay establishes the Amistad decision as a provocation to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney's statement, that a black person has no rights which a white person is obligated to respect, contradicted the Amistad decision. The French, Spanish and Portuguese generated a variety of responses to the growth of slavery in there colonies.
Thirteen documents or document sets are offered on England, the British colonies and the United States. Included are Pennsylvania's 1780 legislative act to gradually abolish slavery in the commonwealth and the 1837 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on whether a free man of color has the right to vote.
This book is suitable for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as individuals seeking a brief but satisfying essay on the legal status of slaves and slavery in the Western hemisphere.