Time, Space, and Jurisdiction in Atlantic World Slavery: The Volunbrun Household in Gradual Emancipation New York
Law and History Review, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 1031-1060, 2011
Posted: 18 Nov 2012
Date Written: 2011
This essay takes up an 1801 freedom suit brought by those held as slaves in the Volunbrun household by those said to be slaves from the French colony of Saint-Domingue. It was the era of gradual emancipation in New York and law makers were engaged in a self-conscious series of reforms aimed at regulating and ultimately bringing an end to slavery in the state. Still, little was settled. Courts, confronted with the lived experiences and doctrinal questions posed by the presence of black refugees from the Haitian revolution, contemplated whether France had abolished slavery in 1794, and, if so, how U.S. courts should regard black refugees said to have been made freed people. Atlantic world dynamics forced legal culture to grapple with authorities beyond its territorial jurisdiction--fleets of French naval vessels, refugees from Caribbean revolutions, decrees of slave generals, and the force of some 200 “French negroes” gathered on a local street. Courts gave way to zealous attorneys, aggressive reformers, impassioned pundits, illicit traders, household intimacies, and disorderly crowds for supremacy over slavery’s juridical dimensions. Slavery helped make the reputations of New York’s elite attorneys and define the parameters of its distinct legal culture. Ultimately, legal culture evidenced neither the acumen nor the ambition to settle who was a slave and who was not.
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