- Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel
A combination of legal history and cultural and literary studies, Edlie Wong’s Neither Fugitive nor Free analyzes lawsuits for freedom as a means for enslaved men and women to claim ownership of their personhood. Beginning with the premise that Southerners initially relied on “sojourner laws” to protect property rights, Wong defines and describes freedom suits during the early to mid-nineteenth century that led to rejection of slaveowners’ rights to travel and hold slaves in free states. Wong offers a fresh perspective on freedom by detailing how travel is used as grounds for enslaved plaintiffs to take legal action and gain emancipation.
Wong uses in-depth archival research of the freedom suit “as recorded in the press and court documents” (2) to offer a greater understanding of the processes by which freedom was sought. Her major intervention in the emerging field of freedom studies is an examination of the ways in which slaves forced to travel by their masters then challenged their status in free states. Wong reads key abolitionist and literary figures, including Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sojourner Truth, alongside cases involving slave plaintiffs (Med, Lucy Ann Delaney, Grace, Catharine Linda, and Harriet Robinson Scott, wife of Dred Scott) and establishes the significance of both types of texts in narratives about freedom. The strength of this rich and informative analysis text is the detail Wong provides about legal cases that informed policies throughout the United States.
The book’s four chapters detail freedom suits in England and in the United States—specifically in Northern states, St. Louis, and mariners’ experiences in the South—and demonstrate how each location became a site and/or source of contestation of enslavement. Beginning with the legal history of contested agency, consent, and “geopolitics of freedom” that began with the Somerset v. Stewart case of 1772 in England, Wong discusses the cases that established precedent favoring freedom for slaves on free soil. Wong also, however, illustrates England’s lack of control over slavery on its own soil despite attempts to represent morality.
She contextualizes this argument with analysis of popular media in the campaigns surrounding both Somerset and Case of the Slave Grace, or The King v. Allan (1827), arguing that the press identified where the law failed by not demanding immediate emancipation. Wong asserts that the ruling did not legislate the condition of slaves brought to England from other places. Thus, the loopholes in Somerset allowed for the Case of the Slave Grace to establish the doctrine of reattachment of slave status upon voluntary return to a slave’s former country. These cases in particular offer precedent for those that follow in Wong’s analysis of legislation in the northern and southwestern United States. Her unique interpretation of what is made legal and legible from the antislavery archive illustrates the instability of laws that were subject to misinterpretation and change based on location.
Although Wong’s focus is on lawsuits with slave plaintiffs, readings of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and others strengthen her framing argument that travel yields freedom. In reference to slavery outside of the United States, Wong also describes Mary Prince’s departure from her master once she is brought as a nurse-maid and laundrywoman to London. After enduring a series of abusive slaveholders in the West Indies, Prince’s quest for freedom illuminated gendered conflicts created by media that sought to make women fit narratives of moral womanhood instead. [End Page 305]
The text does not promote an easy understanding of freedom, as Wong details the desire of many enslaved men and women (including Harriet Jacobs) to preserve relationships with their kin instead of seeking freedom on their own terms. Her eloquent and powerful argument about the bonds between parents and children, evident in the cases of Sojourner Truth, Catharine Linda, and a woman simply known as “Betty,” reveals the ambivalence of mothers who had to choose between...