Wong's essay charts the legal controversies over slaves brought into New England after Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw's forceful application of the celebrated British civil suit, Somerset v. Stewart (1772), in the landmark case of the slave girl Med, or Commonwealth v. Aves (1836). It explores material that has been largely left out of the antislavery story: the cases brought by abolitionists to free slaves who had traveled with their masters into free territory. Wong's essay reconstructs the records of these cases from popular literature, newsprint, and legal pamphlets to explore what recent literary and historical scholarship has largely overlooked. Harriet and John S. Jacobs, Maria Weston Chapman, Sojourner Truth, and Ellis Gray Loring appear alongside a number of largely unknown slave attendants in an essay that explores the complex ways legal discourses circulating in newsprint constituted the agency and subjectivity of slaves who petitioned Northern courts for freedom (in counterdistinction from the criminal will of the fugitive). Their cases reveal the contradictory logic by which abolitionists disregarded the slaves' express desires to remain with their masters, and in many cases argued for the very sorts of separations from kin that usually figured so largely in abolitionist attacks on slavery. These legal stories compose a loose genre of antislavery literature, charting the struggles of jurists, slaveholders, free blacks, and abolitionists as they negotiated the predicament of a territorially bounded freedom.
Edlie Wong; “Freedom with a Vengeance”: Choosing Kin in Antislavery Literature and Law. American Literature 1 March 2009; 81 (1): 7–34. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-049
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