- Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South by Loren Schweninger
Appealing for Liberty is a significant new addition to the scholarship of slavery, providing a wide-ranging analysis of enslaved people's legal action [End Page 637] to gain freedom in the U.S. South from the Revolutionary period to the Civil War. While other analyses of freedom suits have often focused on particular states, Loren Schweninger draws on his many years as a director of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to examine an especially broad range of suits, analyzing 2,023 freedom suits across fifteen slaveholding states and the District of Columbia. Most of these cases took place in the Upper South, where the path to freedom remained more accessible throughout the years examined.
Appealing for Liberty is part of a rich new expansion of scholarship about the legal experiences of free people of color and slaves in the antebellum era, which also includes the work of Kimberly Welch, Kelly Kennington, Martha Jones, Hendrik Hartog, and Lea VanderVelde. The common thread throughout this scholarship is an emphasis on the messiness of the law on the ground and an in-depth analysis of how people of color engaged with law and the courts. Like these other scholars, Schweninger goes beyond the letter of the law to focus on what happened in practice, showing the "years of struggle, thwarted expectations, hiring auctions, and appeals" (87). However, his book stands out not only for its breadth but also for its quantitative conclusions based on the cases in the database. Schweninger found, for instance, that litigants were generally represented by respected white lawyers who were often slaveholders themselves and that once cases made it into the courtroom, black litigants were often successful. He discovered, too, that despite variation across different states, "decade by decade, the number of freedom suits in the South as a whole remained relatively constant" (4).
The first two-thirds of the book analyzes the different legal means through which enslaved men and women could gain their freedom, including through wills, as term slaves, by bringing cases as descendants of free women, and by litigating over residency in a free state. Throughout, Schweninger emphasizes the way in which the law was often not carried out and the difficulties that African Americans met in trying to gain their freedom. At the same time, he shows how these cases played out in courts of law and analyzes the success that black litigants at times achieved in the courtroom. The final third of the book focuses on the relationships that are revealed in these freedom suits, including the associations of husbands and wives, mothers and children, and lawyers and their clients. As the book traverses a wide range of different kinds of suits, Schweninger is particularly masterful at showing differences across various states and change over time. He notes as well the differences in practice between courts of law and chancery courts, including how both were used by plaintiffs and their lawyers in these cases. [End Page 638]
One of the book's major contributions is its analysis of the role of enslaved people in gaining their freedom. Schweninger shows how enslaved people negotiated self-hire and self-purchase and purchased family members to provide them with freedom. The book also examines the knowledge that enslaved people had of the legal system and how this legal understanding played a role in their suits. According to Schweninger, black litigants often supplied their lawyers with many of the "essential facts and . . . key phrases" of their suits and had some knowledge of the law in many cases, including an understanding of their right to freedom if they had been promised it, awareness of their claim to freedom based on being the descendants of free matriarchal ancestors, and occasionally knowledge of "state laws that might be applicable to their cases" (246). Appealing for Liberty pays special attention as well to the role of black women in these suits, noting their...