Hyde reassesses the relationship between natural and civil rights by tracking the climatological metaphors that shape representations of the 1841 slave revolt aboard the Creole, in which 135 slaves obtained freedom by redirecting a US ship to the British territory of Nassau, Bahamas. Reading Frederick Douglass’s fictional reconstruction of the revolt in “The Heroic Slave” (1853) in conjunction with the diplomatic letters it revises, Hyde shows how the conceit of natural law allowed writers to portray national statutes as mere “local fictions.” Whereas Secretary of State Daniel Webster symptomatically invoked the rhetoric of weather and natural disaster to negate the agency of the slaves on the Creole, Douglass uses natural phenomena to portray emancipation as a force of nature that controverts the geopolitical partitioning of freedom. Douglass’s objective, however, is not ultimately postnational or cosmopolitan, as critics have suggested. Instead, “The Heroic Slave” uses the universalizing rhetoric of natural law to denaturalize exclusionary laws within the United States, even as it attempts to salvage the potential of US democracy. Douglass never forfeits the idea that rights ought to be inalienable by nature, but by recognizing that rights are alienable in practice—not simply that they are often divested and withheld, but that they can be transferred to those who do not already possess them—he narrates the extralegal drama of political legitimation.

The text of this article is only available as a PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.