Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Takes, Slavery Edition

Three recent SSRN articles touching on legal aspects of 18th and 19th Century slavery. Haven't read any of them yet, but a quick glance suggests the first is more likely to be of interest to general readers:

Paul Finkelman, Let Justice Be Done, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Law of Freedom:
In May 1772 Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench in England, heard preliminary arguments in the case of James Somerset, a Virginia slave who claimed his freedom under English common law. Charles Stewart, Somerset's master, wanted to send the slave to Jamaica to be sold. Somerset sought a writ of habeas corpus to escape this fate. This action brought the legality of slavery before the highest court in Great Britain.

This case would serve as the precedent for freeing slaves in a number of jurisdictions outside of Great Britain. Yet, Somerset did not bring immediate freedom to all slaves in England; as late as the 1830s at least some blacks were probably enslaved in Great Britain. And, Somerset surely had little immediate impact on most of the Empire, where slavery existed for another half century.

Lea S. Vandervelde, The Labor Vision of the Thirteenth Amendment:
The conventional understanding of the Thirteenth amendment is that it abolished the particular antebellum southern institution that subjugated black persons as slaves. Yet, the congressional debates reveal a much more expansive vision of labor reform. This theme has largely been lost in modern interpretation. Historical events rarely result from a single cause, and a single idea rarely drives legislative action. Nonetheless, beside the more religious abolitionist arguments, one finds numerous speakers who focused on labor conditions. Consequently, this Article aims to recapture the strong pro-labor theme that runs consistently through the debates.

As a whole, the Reconstruction debates reflect a desire to improve all workers' status by recognizing the dignity of labor, guaranteeing workers a wide range of opportunities for advancement, and raising the floor of legal rights accorded all working men. The pattern of discourse in the debates reveal a structure formed by three types of statements. The first addresses the historical need to rid employment relations of the master's patriarchal dominion over all laborers in his household and to accord the employee a realm of family and personal privacy free from employer control. The second describes the core concept of autonomy for laborers in their social and economic relations with employers. The final group targets certain specific labor practices as inconsistent with the spirit of labor autonomy. This three part configuration is useful in exploring the amendment's reach in restructuring baseline rights in the modem employment relation. The Reconstruction debates constitute an important resource because they record the original attempt to mandate constitutionally a minimum level of worker protection.

The debates follow an interesting dialectical pattern. In order to respond to the criticisms of slavery's advocates, the Radical Republicans had to create both a positive vision as well as the negative condemnation of slavery. The free labor ideal provided its affirmative side. The free labor ideal grew out of the Republican Party's origins in the Free Soil, Free Labor Movement as well as the self-interest of the northern white working class. Together, they present a powerful argument for constitutionally grounding the protection of working people from overreaching subjugation and abuses at the hands of employers.

The evidence suggests that the thirteenth amendment was animated by a conception of labor reform broader than the elimination of racial servitude which was its catalyst. From this perspective, race slavery was objectionable not only for its pernicious racism, but also as the most obvious and brutal violation of the free labor principle. Senator Henry Wilson’s remarks typify this perspective when he explained the party’s motivation as concern for the condition of the "worst off working man," rather than merely his formal legal reclassification.

This free labor vision has potentially far-reaching implications for constitutional interpretation of the thirteenth amendment and for many aspects of the modern employment relation.

Ariela J. Gross, Legal Transplants: Slavery and the Civil Law in Louisiana:
Can Louisiana tell us something about civil law vs. common law regimes of slavery? What can the Louisiana experience tell us about a civil law jurisdiction "transplanted" in a common-law country? Louisiana is unique among American states in having been governed first by France, then by Spain, before becoming a U.S. territory and state in the nineteenth century. Unlike other slave states, it operated under a civil code, first the Digest of 1808, and then the Code of 1825. With regard to the regulation of slaves, these codes also incorporated a "Black Code," first adopted in 1806, which owed a great deal to both French and Spanish law. Comparisons of Louisiana with other slave states tend to emphasize the uniqueness of New Orleans' three-tier caste system, with a significant population of gens de couleur libre (free people of color), and the ameliorative influence of Spanish law. This reflects more general assumptions about comparative race and slavery in the Americas, based on the work of Frank Tannenbaum and other historians of an earlier generation, who drew sharp contrasts between slavery in British and Spanish America. How does the comparison shift if we turn our attention away from slave codes, where Tannenbaum focused, to the "law in action"? At the local level, one can see the way slaves took advantage of the gap between rules and enforcement, and to fathom racial meanings at the level of day-to-day interactions rather than comparisions of formal rules. This essay surveys three areas of law involving slaves - manumission, racial identity, and "redhibition" (breach of warranty) - to compare Louisiana to other jurisdictions, and particularly to its common-law neighbors.

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