Slavery, Privateers, South Carolina, Massachusetts, Freed slaves
Emily Blanck uses a little known interstate dispute to discuss some sweeping issues in the legal history of slavery and the larger historiography of the nation’s founding. Tyrannicide tells the tale of a group of thirty-four slaves captured by British privateers from their South Carolina plantations during the American Revolution who, by varieties of happenstance and chance, ended up captured by the American privateer Tyrannicide and escorted to Boston in 1779. Their story is the backdrop for Blanck’s analysis of the fissures that developed between North and South concerning the institution of slavery during the revolutionary period.
Blanck organizes her work very much as a tale of two states, showing the divergent paths that South Carolina and Massachusetts had embarked on from the colonial period forward. By the onset of the Revolution, both remained slaveholding states, yet the economic purpose and overall understanding of the institution’s in each state was quite different in opinion and especially law. The author’s exploration of the colonial [End Page 405] legal past identifies some strong differences between both locales as they emerged as states in 1776, with Massachusetts being quite comfortable identifying slaves as persons under the law and therefore entitled to certain fundamental rights. South Carolina, on the other hand, repeatedly affirmed slaves as property and therefore unable to access those rights, most importantly habeas corpus, which Massachusetts slaves had successfully used in the late colonial period to argue for freedom.
Beyond the differences in their colonial past, Blanck illustrates how the revolutionary experience dictated separate reactions to the continuation of slavery. South Carolinians, surrounded by an enslaved population hungry to seize the freedom offered by the British, created laws that further regulated the institution, while Massachusetts residents, who had far fewer slaves for the British to coopt, became more interested in abandoning it. Blanck argues that they would have done just that if the institution’s destruction would not have shattered the fragile unity that held the various states together in the midst of war.
The divergence of the states on the role of slavery comes into full view when those thirty-four South Carolina slaves arrived in Massachusetts. Though more than half quickly returned to South Carolina, fourteen lived in Boston and its environs for the next four years as their owners could not afford to easily reclaim them. Those fourteen individuals not only soaked up the revolutionary rhetoric and ideas promulgated by the city’s free black community but also possessed a front-row seat for a series of court battles from 1780 to 1783 that started Massachusetts toward the path of becoming a free state. By 1783, when the owners tried to reclaim their slaves, they faced an uphill legal battle that tested the new union between the states in respecting each other’s property.
At its core then, Tyrannicide explores the tension between the post-revolutionary governments of South Carolina and Massachusetts over the fate of these fourteen slaves. Officials from both states traded numerous letters that reveal just how different the two states’ legal systems were on the issue of slavery during this critical period. In a process fraught with legal misunderstandings on both sides, the fourteen individuals gained de facto freedom as their South Carolina owners and the state’s representatives declined to continue advocating the case against their northern neighbors. Blanck shows how this episode tested the limits of colonial unity and created the first fissures that would eventually come to bear on the constitutional debate over the fugitive slave clause. The Tyrannicide affair acted as a rehearsal for those issues and powerfully [End Page 406] shows that contention between slave and free states pre-dated the Constitution and remained a divisive concern from the nation’s very beginning.
Although Blanck sets up a clear dichotomy between crumbling Massachusetts slavery and its fortification in South Carolina, her discussion of the process of slavery’s death in the...