'Yearning to Breath Free': Legal Barriers Against and Options in Favor of Liberty in Antebellum Virginia

60 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2008

Date Written: December 1993


This Article presents historical material which enhances our understanding of slavery as a legal institution. The authors examine actions taken by the Virginia legislature and judiciary from the American Revolution through the late antebellum period regarding the freeing of slaves. Their study reveals a complex dynamic by which legislative provisions enabling the freeing of individuals and groups held as slaves were undermined by the judiciary. Economic and political considerations, the authors argue, led a staunchly pro-slavery legislature to provide these narrow opportunities for freedom. These provisions included the property right of slave owners to free their slaves unilaterally, and the right of individuals held as slaves to petition the courts directly for freedom on grounds that they were wrongfully held. The authors show, however, that at most turns the Virginia courts manipulated procedures and burdens of proof to close the opportunities the legislature provided.

Keywords: Virginia legislature, Virginia judiciary, slavery, antebellum period, liberty, legal barriers, manumission, slave trade

JEL Classification: K39, K49, J15, J79

Suggested Citation

Higginbotham, F. Michael and Higginbotham, A. Leon, 'Yearning to Breath Free': Legal Barriers Against and Options in Favor of Liberty in Antebellum Virginia (December 1993). New York University Law Review, Vol. 68, No.6, p. 1213, 1993, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1279543

F. Michael Higginbotham (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States

A. Leon Higginbotham



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