Suing for Freedom: Interracial Sex, Slave Law, and Racial Identity in the Post-Revolutionary and Antebellum South

86 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2011 Last revised: 8 May 2012

See all articles by Jason Gillmer

Jason Gillmer

Gonzaga University - School of Law

Date Written: January 1, 2004

Abstract

This Article looks at freedom suits and, in particular, the different ways the Southern socio-legal regime responded to slaves of mixed-race descent asserting their right to freedom in the courts. Through an exhaustive examination of these cases, the Article details how the courts were initially receptive to these suits but gradually pulled back as sectional tensions mounted. The Article maintains that the courts’ changing response was very much tied to the shifting notions of race and what it meant. During the post-Revolutionary period, particularly in the Upper South, blackness did not necessarily mean slavery, and mixed-race slaves successfully asserted they were entitled to their freedom because they descended from a free person. By the 1850s, such claims became untenable, and the focus of the trials turned away from proving ancestry to differentiating whites from blacks. Viewed this way, even a hint of blackness meant the person was not white and must be a slave, and helps explain the precipitous drop in the successful prosecution of freedom.

Suggested Citation

Gillmer, Jason, Suing for Freedom: Interracial Sex, Slave Law, and Racial Identity in the Post-Revolutionary and Antebellum South (January 1, 2004). North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 82, No. 2, January 2004, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1799647

Jason Gillmer (Contact Author)

Gonzaga University - School of Law ( email )

721 N. Cincinnati Street
Spokane, WA 99220-3528
United States

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