Constructing Freedom: A Letter by George M. Bibb Concerning the Will of the Rev. Richard Bibb, Sr.
9 Unbound: A Review of Legal History and Rare Books 133 (2016)
15 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2017 Last revised: 2 Jun 2017
Date Written: 2016
Slavery, America’s original sin, played a pervasive role in the psyche of Kentuckians before the Civil War. No group faced more moral anguish than the state’s Christian ministers, many who also owned slaves. In the late 1830s, a Methodist minister, Richard Bibb, began to grapple with these issues. Having early settled earlier in Western Kentucky in one of the areas of the state most amenable to plantation agriculture, Bibb had owned up to a hundred slaves at times. But now he was called by his faith to free them, something he did most finally in his will, probated after his death in 1839.
His son, John B. Bibb, was named as executor but Kentucky law made the freeing of large groups of very difficult so John asked his brother, a prominent Kentucky jurist and Democratic politician for legal advice. George M. Bibb had just finished a term as a proslavery U.S. senator and was now judge of the Jefferson County Court of chancery.
Judge Bibb responded with a well-reasoned opinion letter that applied the law of wills to Kentucky's restrictive emancipation laws, laws that attempted to prevent free slaves from remaining in the state and becoming a charge on the county poor law rolls. Bibb acknowledged his opposition to his father’s pro-emancipation views but assured his brother John that his ethical duty to help advance the intentions of the testator overrode any feeling along those lines. The letter is an extraordinary example of an antebellum legal opinion letter.
The will is transcribed faithfully but footnotes are added to provide proper citations for all the authorities cited. Detailed introductory chapters describe the Bibb family, discuss the views of Rev. James Bibb, Sr., set out the law of slavery and emancipation in Kentucky, and give a thumbnail sketch of one of the freed men Andrew J. Bibb.
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