Making Slavery's Borders: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Slavery's Northwestern Frontier, 1787-1860

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This dissertation examines the gradual construction and contested meanings of U.S. slavery’s first western border. According to most historiography, Congress’s Northwest Ordinance of 1787 fixed the meaning of this border at the nation’s inception, constituting the Northwest Territory as the free opposite of slave territories south and west of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In contrast, drawing upon local court records, statutes, newspapers, personal papers, and slave narratives from both sides of the Mississippi, this dissertation argues that local disputes over African American personal status made this contested and often circumvented border a lived reality. Congress laid a necessary legal foundation by passing the Ordinance. Yet the legal actions of ordinary westerners, particularly African Americans themselves, gradually transformed Congress’s abstract legal pronouncement into an authoritative legal norm during the seven decades between the Northwest Ordinance and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the infamous Supreme Court decision that finalized this process. The dissertation analyzes African American slavery and freedom as made and experienced in St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois. Although the Northwest Ordinance formally divided these jurisdictions into slave and free soil, various degrees and legal categories of black unfreedom persisted in both places long after 1787. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi sharply divided slave soil from free. Yet this process took far longer, and involved a wider range of legal actors, than usually imagined. These included free African Americans, fugitives from slavery, enslaved African Americans who sued for freedom on both sides of the Mississippi, and the region’s mostly small-scale slaveholders. Moreover, largely as a result of Illinois’s emergence as unambiguously free by the 1850s, legal debates over the parameters of black freedom and citizenship intensified along slavery’s western borders. Even after a range of legal actors had constructed slavery’s Mississippi River border, freedom itself remained a contested legal category up to the Civil War.

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  • 01/29/2019
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