The Political Languages of Emancipation in the British Caribbean and the U.S. South

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Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Publications Pages Publications Pages. Oxford Research Encyclopedias African History. Search within subject: Select Slavery at the Cape. Read More. Subscriber sign in. Indeed, a far stronger case can be made that without the American Revolution, the condition of Native Americans would have been no better, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies would have been significantly delayed, and the condition of European colonists throughout the British empire, not just those in what became the United States, would have been worse than otherwise.

Like all major social upheavals, it was brought off by a disparate coalition of competing viewpoints and conflicting interests. Although by no means in agreement on everything, the radicals tended to object to excessive government power in general and not simply to British rule. They ultimately sought a strong central government, which would reproduce the hierarchical and mercantilist features of the eighteenth-century British fiscal-military State, only without the British.

Of course, any such sharp distinction entails some over-simplification. These differences were arrayed along a spectrum, and individuals over time might alter their perspectives. Thus, John Adams started out as a radical but became a nationalist, whereas James Madison evolved in the opposite direction. Caplan asks what specific benefits came about because of the American Revolution. There are at least four momentous ones. They are all libertarian alterations in the internal status quo that prevailed, although they were sometimes deplored or resisted by American nationalists.

The First Abolition: Prior to the American Revolution, every New World colony, British or otherwise, legally sanctioned slavery, and nearly every colony counted enslaved people among its population.


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Vermont, which, despite participation in the Revolution remained an independent republic until it was permitted to join the union in , was the first jurisdiction to abolish adult slavery—in In , the Confederation Congress also prohibited the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territory. There is a tendency to minimize this first emancipation because slavery had been less economically entrenched in the northern colonies than in the southern colonies and because in many northern states slavery was eliminated gradually.


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But emancipation had to start somewhere. The fact that it did so where opposition was weakest in no way diminishes the radical nature of this assault upon a labor system that had remained virtually unchallenged since the dawn of civilization. Of course, slavery had largely died out within Britain. Masters continued to bring slaves occasionally into the country and were able to hold them there. Parliament did not formally and entirely abolish the institution in the mother country until Several southern states banned the importation of slaves and relaxed their nearly universal restrictions on masters voluntarily freeing their own slaves.

Through resulting manumissions, 10, Virginia slaves were freed, more than were freed in Massachusetts by judicial decree. This spawned the first substantial communities of free blacks, which in the upper South helped induce a slow, partial decline of slavery. By , for instance, three quarters of African-Americans in Delaware were already free through this process.

Separation of Church and State: Unlike the case of slavery, the revolutionary separation of church and state was more pronounced in the South than in the North. Although the British colonies prior to the Revolution already practiced a relatively high degree of religious toleration, only four of thirteen colonies had no established, tax-supported church: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

As a result of the Revolution, the five other southern states and New York disestablished the Anglican Church. With the adoption of the Constitution and then the First Amendment, the United States become the first country to separate church and state at the national level. Several of the New England states, however, retained their established Congregational Church, with Massachusetts becoming the last to fully abolish tax support as late as In our modern secular age, it is too easy to take these accomplishments for granted, but they were unprecedented.

Republican Governments: As a result of the Revolution, nearly all of the former colonies adopted written state constitutions setting up republican governments with limitations on state power embodied in bills of rights. Only Rhode Island and Connecticut continued to operate under their colonial charters, with minor modifications.

The new state constitutions often extended the franchise, with Vermont being again the first jurisdiction to adopt universal male suffrage with no property qualifications and explicitly without regard to color. Going along with this was a reform of penal codes throughout the former colonies, making them less severe, and eliminating such brutal physical punishments as ear-cropping and branding, all still widely practiced in Britain. Virginia reduced the number of capital crimes from twenty-seven to two: murder and treason. Quit-rents, a feudal land tax that had been paid either to colonial proprietors or to the Crown, had been due in all colonies outside of New England and were now terminated.

All the new states abolished primogeniture the sole right of inheritance to the firstborn son and entail a prohibition of the sale, break up, or transfer to outside the family of an estate where they existed, either by statute or by constitutional provisions. Doing so not only eliminated economically inefficient feudal encumbrances on land titles but also was a blow against hereditary privilege and the patriarchal family, because it undermined traditional patterns of inheritance and facilitated the rights of daughters and widows to possess property.

Anyone who has read a Jane Austen novel is aware that these legal props for the landed gentry still persisted in Britain into the nineteenth century. At the same time, all states except South Carolina liberalized their divorce laws. Even the egregious treatment of Loyalists during the Revolution indirectly contributed to the erosion of feudal entitlements. The claim that only one third of Americans supported the Revolution, one third were neutral, and one third were opposed is still frequently repeated, but it is a misreading of a letter written by John Adams in referring instead to American attitudes about the French Revolution.

The consensus of historians is that between 40 and 50 percent of the white population were active Patriots, between 15 and 20 percent were Loyalists, and the remainder were neutral or kept a low profile. Yet all the new states passed laws confiscating Loyalist estates. Since many of these estates were proprietary grants to royal placemen, 3 the confiscations entailed a redistributionist land reform.

The U.

2. Southern Society: Slavery, King Cotton, and Antebellum America's "Peculiar" Region

But such titles, still prevalent throughout the Old World, always involved enormous legal privileges. This provision is, therefore, a manifestation of the extent to which the Revolution witnessed a decline in deference throughout society. At that date, , slaves lived in Virginia alone, making up 42 percent of all slaves in the U. South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland each had over , slaves. After the American Revolution, the Southern slave population exploded, reaching about 1.

Despite their numbers, slaves typically comprised a minority of the local population. Only in antebellum South Carolina and Mississippi did slaves outnumber free persons. Most Southerners owned no slaves and most slaves lived in small groups rather than on large plantations. Less than one-quarter of white Southerners held slaves, with half of these holding fewer than five and fewer than 1 percent owning more than one hundred.

In , the average number of slaves residing together was about ten. How did the U. They enjoyed an exceptional rate of natural increase.

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Unlike elsewhere in the New World, the South did not require constant infusions of immigrant slaves to keep its slave population intact. In fact, by , 36 percent of the slaves in the Western hemisphere lived in the U. This was partly due to higher birth rates, which were in turn due to a more equal ratio of female to male slaves in the U. Lower mortality rates also figured prominently. Climate was one cause; crops were another. This work was relatively less grueling than the tasks on the sugar plantations of the West Indies and in the mines and fields of South America.

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Southern slaves worked in industry, did domestic work, and grew a variety of other food crops as well, mostly under less abusive conditions than their counterparts elsewhere. For example, the South grew half to three-quarters of the corn crop harvested between and Central to the success of slavery are political and legal institutions that validate the ownership of other persons. A Kentucky court acknowledged the dual character of slaves in Turner v. But they are human beings, with like passions, sympathies, and affections with ourselves.

The outcome was a set of doctrines that supported the Southern way of life. The English common law of property formed a foundation for U. The French and Spanish influence in Louisiana — and, to a lesser extent, Texas — meant that Roman or civil law offered building blocks there as well. Despite certain formal distinctions, slave law as practiced differed little from common-law to civil-law states. Federal law and laws in various Northern states also dealt with matters of interstate commerce, travel, and fugitive slaves. Interestingly enough, just as slave law combined elements of other sorts of law, so too did it yield principles that eventually applied elsewhere.

Lawmakers had to consider the intelligence and volition of slaves as they crafted laws to preserve property rights. Slavery therefore created legal rules that could potentially apply to free persons as well as to those in bondage. Many legal principles we now consider standard in fact had their origins in slave law. By the end of the seventeenth century, the status of blacks — slave or free — tended to follow the status of their mothers. One odd case was the offspring of a free white woman and a slave: the law often bound these people to servitude for thirty-one years. Conversion to Christianity could set a slave free in the early colonial period, but this practice quickly disappeared.

Southern law largely identified skin color with status. Those who appeared African or of African descent were generally presumed to be slaves. Virginia was the only state to pass a statute that actually classified people by race: essentially, it considered those with one quarter or more black ancestry as black. Other states used informal tests in addition to visual inspection: one-quarter, one-eighth, or one-sixteenth black ancestry might categorize a person as black.

Even if blacks proved their freedom, they enjoyed little higher status than slaves except, to some extent, in Louisiana. Many Southern states forbade free persons of color from becoming preachers, selling certain goods, tending bar, staying out past a certain time of night, or owning dogs, among other things. Federal law denied black persons citizenship under the Dred Scott decision In this case, Chief Justice Roger Taney also determined that visiting a free state did not free a slave who returned to a slave state, nor did traveling to a free territory ensure emancipation.

Southern masters enjoyed great freedom in their dealings with slaves. In part, the differences in allowable punishment had to do with the substitutability of other means of persuasion. Instead of physical coercion, antebellum employers could legally withhold all wages if a worker did not complete all agreed-upon services. No such alternate mechanism existed for slaves. Despite the respect Southerners held for the power of masters, the law — particularly in the thirty years before the Civil War — limited owners somewhat.

Southerners feared that unchecked slave abuse could lead to theft, public beatings, and insurrection. People also thought that hungry slaves would steal produce and livestock. But masters who treated slaves too well, or gave them freedom, caused consternation as well. Still, prosecuting masters was extremely difficult, because often the only witnesses were slaves or wives, neither of whom could testify against male heads of household.

Slavery in the British and French Caribbean

One area that changed dramatically over time was the law of manumission. The South initially allowed masters to set their slaves free because this was an inherent right of property ownership. During the Revolutionary period, some Southern leaders also believed that manumission was consistent with the ideology of the new nation. Manumission occurred only rarely in colonial times, increased dramatically during the Revolution, then diminished after the early s. By the s, most Southern states had begun to limit manumission. Allowing masters to free their slaves at will created incentives to emancipate only unproductive slaves.

Consequently, the community at large bore the costs of young, old, and disabled former slaves. The public might also run the risk of having rebellious former slaves in its midst. Antebellum U. Southern states worried considerably about these problems and eventually enacted restrictions on the age at which slaves could be free, the number freed by any one master, and the number manumitted by last will.

Some required former masters to file indemnifying bonds with state treasurers so governments would not have to support indigent former slaves. Many states limited manumissions to slaves of a certain age who were capable of earning a living. A few states made masters emancipate their slaves out of state or encouraged slaveowners to bequeath slaves to the Colonization Society, which would then send the freed slaves to Liberia.

Former slaves sometimes paid fees on the way out of town to make up for lost property tax revenue; they often encountered hostility and residential fees on the other end as well. By , most Southern states had banned in-state and post-mortem manumissions, and some had enacted procedures by which free blacks could voluntarily become slaves.

In addition to constraints on manumission, laws restricted other actions of masters and, by extension, slaves. Masters generally had to maintain a certain ratio of white to black residents upon plantations. Some laws barred slaves from owning musical instruments or bearing firearms. All states refused to allow slaves to make contracts or testify in court against whites. About half of Southern states prohibited masters from teaching slaves to read and write although some of these permitted slaves to learn rudimentary mathematics.

The Political Languages of Emancipation in the British Caribbean and the U.S. South

Masters could use slaves for some tasks and responsibilities, but they typically could not order slaves to compel payment, beat white men, or sample cotton. Nor could slaves officially hire themselves out to others, although such prohibitions were often ignored by masters, slaves, hirers, and public officials. Owners faced fines and sometimes damages if their slaves stole from others or caused injuries. Southern law did encourage benevolence, at least if it tended to supplement the lash and shackle. Court opinions in particular indicate the belief that good treatment of slaves could enhance labor productivity, increase plantation profits, and reinforce sentimental ties.

Allowing slaves to control small amounts of property, even if statutes prohibited it, was an oft-sanctioned practice. Courts also permitted slaves small diversions, such as Christmas parties and quilting bees, despite statutes that barred slave assemblies. Slaves were freely bought and sold across the antebellum South. Southern law offered greater protection to slave buyers than to buyers of other goods, in part because slaves were complex commodities with characteristics not easily ascertained by inspection.

Slave sellers were responsible for their representations, required to disclose known defects, and often liable for unknown defects, as well as bound by explicit contractual language. These rules stand in stark contrast to the caveat emptor doctrine applied in antebellum commodity sales cases. In fact, they more closely resemble certain provisions of the modern Uniform Commercial Code. Sales law in two states stands out. South Carolina was extremely pro-buyer, presuming that any slave sold at full price was sound.

Louisiana buyers enjoyed extensive legal protection as well. A sold slave who later manifested an incurable disease or vice — such as a tendency to escape frequently — could generate a lawsuit that entitled the purchaser to nullify the sale. Slaves faced the possibility of being hired out by their masters as well as being sold. Although scholars disagree about the extent of hiring in agriculture, most concur that hired slaves frequently worked in manufacturing, construction, mining, and domestic service.

Hired slaves and free persons often labored side by side. Bond and free workers both faced a legal burden to behave responsibly on the job. Yet the law of the workplace differed significantly for the two: generally speaking, employers were far more culpable in cases of injuries to slaves. The divergent law for slave and free workers does not necessarily imply that free workers suffered. Empirical evidence shows that nineteenth-century free laborers received at least partial compensation for the risks of jobs.

Indeed, the tripartite nature of slave-hiring arrangements suggests why antebellum laws appeared as they did. Whereas free persons had direct work and contractual relations with their bosses, slaves worked under terms designed by others. Free workers arguably could have walked out or insisted on different conditions or wages.

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Slaves could not. The law therefore offered substitute protections. Still, the powerful interests of slaveowners also may mean that they simply were more successful at shaping the law. Postbellum developments in employment law — North and South — in fact paralleled earlier slave-hiring law, at times relying upon slave cases as legal precedents.


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Public transportation also figured into slave law: slaves suffered death and injury aboard common carriers as well as traveled as legitimate passengers and fugitives. As elsewhere, slave-common carrier law both borrowed from and established precedents for other areas of law. Slaveowner plaintiffs won several cases in the decade before the Civil War when engineers failed to warn slaves off railroad tracks. Postbellum courts used slave cases as precedents to entrench the last-clear-chance doctrine. Society at large shared in maintaining the machinery of slavery.

In place of a standing police force, Southern states passed legislation to establish and regulate county-wide citizen patrols. County courts had local administrative authority; court officials appointed three to five men per patrol from a pool of white male citizens to serve for a specified period. Typical patrol duty ranged from one night per week for a year to twelve hours per month for three months.

Not all white men had to serve: judges, magistrates, ministers, and sometimes millers and blacksmiths enjoyed exemptions. So did those in the higher ranks of the state militia. In many states, courts had to select from adult males under a certain age, usually 45, 50, or Some states allowed only slaveowners or householders to join patrols. Patrollers typically earned fees for captured fugitive slaves and exemption from road or militia duty, as well as hourly wages. Statutes set guidelines for appropriate treatment of slaves and often imposed fines for unlawful beatings.

In rare instances, patrollers had to compensate masters for injured slaves. For the most part, however, patrollers enjoyed quasi-judicial or quasi-executive powers in their dealings with slaves. Overseers commanded considerable control as well. The Southern overseer was the linchpin of the large slave plantation. He ran daily operations and served as a first line of defense in safeguarding whites. The vigorous protests against drafting overseers into military service during the Civil War reveal their significance to the South.

Yet slaves were too valuable to be left to the whims of frustrated, angry overseers. Overseers occasionally confronted criminal charges as well. Brutality by overseers naturally generated responses by their victims; at times, courts reduced murder charges to manslaughter when slaves killed abusive overseers. Whether they liked it or not, many Southerners dealt daily with slaves.

Southern law shaped these interactions among strangers, awarding damages more often for injuries to slaves than injuries to other property or persons, shielding slaves more than free persons from brutality, and generating convictions more frequently in slave-stealing cases than in other criminal cases. The law also recognized more offenses against slaveowners than against other property owners because slaves, unlike other property, succumbed to influence. Just as assaults of slaves generated civil damages and criminal penalties, so did stealing a slave to sell him or help him escape to freedom.

Many Southerners considered slave stealing worse than killing fellow citizens. In marked contrast, selling a free black person into slavery carried almost no penalty.

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The counterpart to helping slaves escape — picking up fugitives — also created laws. Southern states offered rewards to defray the costs of capture or passed statutes requiring owners to pay fees to those who caught and returned slaves. Some Northern citizens worked hand-in-hand with their Southern counterparts, returning fugitive slaves to masters either with or without the prompting of law.

But many Northerners vehemently opposed the peculiar institution. In an attempt to stitch together the young nation, the federal government passed the first fugitive slave act in To circumvent its application, several Northern states passed personal liberty laws in the s. Stronger federal fugitive slave legislation then passed in This occupation was often highly risky — enough so that such men could not purchase life insurance coverage — and just as often highly lucrative.

Southern law governed slaves as well as slaveowners and their adversaries. What few due process protections slaves possessed stemmed from desires to grant rights to masters. Still, slaves faced harsh penalties for their crimes. When slaves stole, rioted, set fires, or killed free people, the law sometimes had to subvert the property rights of masters in order to preserve slavery as a social institution.

Slaves, like other antebellum Southern residents, committed a host of crimes ranging from arson to theft to homicide. Southern states erected numerous punishments for slave crimes, including prison terms, banishment, whipping, castration, and execution. In most states, the criminal law for slaves and blacks generally was noticeably harsher than for free whites; in others, slave law as practiced resembled that governing poorer white citizens.

Particularly harsh punishments applied to slaves who had allegedly killed their masters or who had committed rebellious acts. Southerners considered these acts of treason and resorted to immolation, drawing and quartering, and hanging. Market prices for slaves reflect their substantial economic value.

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