Comparative Studies of Law, Slavery, and Race in the Americas
Posted: 14 Nov 2010
Date Written: December 2010
This review surveys the historical research comparing U.S. and Latin American law and slavery and describes how it has informed the development of legal studies of slavery in the Americas. The first generation of comparative work on race and slavery relied heavily on law to draw sharp contrasts between U.S. and Latin American slavery. Revisionist social historians criticized those scholars for providing a misleading top-down history of slavery based on metropolitan codes and instead emphasized demographic and economic factors that suggested pronounced variation in slavery regimes. However, social historians who study relationships of power in slaves' lives have found that they must reckon with law and legal institutions. Recently, legal historians have also begun to explore slave law from the bottom up: through slaves' claims in court, trial-level adjudications, and interactions among ordinary people and low-level government officials. Most studies of slavery stay within one national context, but a few scholars have begun comparative work once more, some examining slavery and freedom in the transnational context of the Atlantic world, others attempting comparisons of manumission in localities across legal regimes.
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