- The Trouble with Minna: A Case of Slavery and Emancipation in the Antebellum North by Hendrik Hartog
Despite its self-effacing title, this slender book invigorates the study of gradual abolition in the first four decades of the nineteenth century by focusing on how courts interpreted the laws that defined the era. Hendrik Hartog uses a dispute in northeastern New Jersey over who bore the responsibility for the care of a partially blind African American woman named Minna to examine with extraordinary care, specificity, and nuance the extended gradual emancipation process. He argues that the legal regime that freed the children of enslaved mothers while binding those children to service created ambiguities and opportunities exploited by whites and by blacks in different ways. Time-bounded servitude encouraged masters, slaves, and servants to think and act contractually, even as declining slave prices in New Jersey and high demand for slave labor in the South incentivized illegal schemes. Meanwhile, changing demographics and differing laws in nearby New York allowed some African Americans to slip the bonds of servitude entirely. These conditions lasted long enough [End Page 146] to constitute a distinct period in the history of northern slavery, neither brief nor merely transitional.
The "trouble with Minna" is simultaneously legal and historical. An abiding concern of northern lawmakers was that neither manumitted slaves nor the children of enslaved mothers become a public financial burden. But constructing a narrative that accounts for Minna's motivations and of those who exercised power over her is difficult. The dispute between Henry Force (Minna's ostensible owner) and Elizabeth Haines over responsibility for the expense of Minna's care, the way jurists responded, and gaps in the historical record combine to create the very sorts of uncertainties that defined life for a far wider group of actors during the era of gradual emancipation. Haines originally acquired Minna from Force in 1822 for a period of less than four years. But Haines provided a home for the allegedly incapacitated Minna for many years after that. A lower court awarded her compensation from Force after an 1836 trial, but in 1840 the state Supreme Court reversed that ruling. In the split decision, the justices divided sharply over the "duty of care" for Minna (31). None, however, even at this late date, questioned the underlying assumption of slave law that she was property. All of the justices, moreover, ignored Minna's interests and motives, including the crucial fact that Minna had a son, Jesse, whose services Haines apparently still wished to enjoy. The court denied that Haines fulfilled some sort of implied contract by covering Minna's expenses. But questions abound: Did Minna remain with Haines not because she was enfeebled but because she wanted to be with her child? By what right did Haines retain control of Jesse? Did Force's refusal to take Minna indicate a promise to manumit? Why did a dissenting justice with abolitionist sympathies argue that Force had an obligation to provide for Minna despite knowing that Force himself at this time was insolvent? While sparse sources cannot provide firm answers to such questions, Hartog's research on life and law under gradual emancipation paints a picture of "the indeterminacies and the incoherence" that defined the era (83).
Gradual emancipation made determining black people's status increasingly difficult; any court case involving African Americans potentially put the laws of slavery and freedom on trial. A fraud case involving arson on the Jersey shore and fire insurance purchased in New York hinged on whether Adam Wyckoff had a legitimate manumission contract with John Quay and which state's laws should be used to make that determination. Quay had induced Wyckoff, ostensibly his slave, to set fire to his property; Wyckoff could only testify if the New York court where the insurance [End Page 147] company sought to deny its liability ruled him to be free based on the subsequent fulfillment of a self-purchase agreement. The two lawyers, both...