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  • Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America by Michael A. Schoeppner
  • Christopher James Bonner (bio)

Negro Seamen Acts, Black mobility, Black sailors, Quarantine laws, Citizenship

Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America. By Michael A. Schoeppner. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. 252. Cloth, $59.99; paper, $32.99.)

Early in the 1820s, reports placed Denmark Vesey at the head of a conspiracy to dismantle South Carolina's racial power structure. Michael Schoeppner notes a revealing thread in these narratives: the idea that Vesey came to Charleston after having inhabited the fluid society of the Atlantic world. In response, Charleston authorities tried to prevent other black people deemed foreign and dangerous from entering through the city's ports. Schoeppner explores the Negro Seamen Acts enacted across the South in the early republic, laws intended to suppress the spread of revolutionary ideas and to curtail the black mobility that threatened southern racial hierarchy. Moral Contagion examines critical questions these laws raised about federalism and citizenship, and the negotiation over these concepts in state, national, and international politics.

A vigilante group known as the South Carolina Association played a key role in the early implementation of the state's Negro Seamen Act. First enacted in 1822, the measure required black soldiers on ships that entered Charleston Harbor to be jailed, or quarantined, until their ships departed. Members of the Association, including some prominent and [End Page 313] powerful white Charlestonians, petitioned for strict enforcement of the law, helped craft more stringent arrest policies, and policed the docks themselves. By the late 1820s, the Association became "a publicly recognized, private policing agency" (60), endorsed by the state government to arrest black sailors. The group's actions offer a compelling story about people engaging with the flexible legal order in the early republic, a point Schoeppner makes by building on work such as Laura Edwards's The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-revolutionary South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2009). The South Carolina Association worked to make the legal order more rigid, not only by arresting hundreds of black sailors in the 1820s but also by securing a state law that levied a hefty fine on any sheriff who failed to enforce the Seaman Acts. A combination of legal and extralegal activity ensured that state government operated to uphold racial order.

Schoeppner also looks outward from South Carolina. In the 1830s, lawmakers across the coastal South enacted similar quarantine laws. These laws responded in part to anxieties over British abolition in the West Indies. And the laws produced tensions with authorities in both the northern United States and in Britain who sought to protect black sailors from the indignity and brutality of southern imprisonment. Quarantine laws intersected often with early U.S. diplomacy. When British authorities insisted on free mobility for black British subjects, they challenged the Seamen Acts and questioned the entire legal system that marginalized black Americans. In response, state legislators, attorneys general, and U.S. Supreme Court justices solidified their commitment to securing slavery and insisted on a constitutional right to restrict people from bringing "moral pestilence" (106) into American communities. In 1837 Spain enacted its own law restricting black sailors from colonial ports like Havana. Initially, U.S. Consul Nicholas Trist contested the policy, claiming it restricted commerce, but ultimately he acquiesced. Schoeppner suggests Spanish authorities swayed Trist by telling him a black British sailor had been arrested in Cuba carrying antislavery literature. Even as it troubled Anglo–American diplomacy, the threat of moral contagion felt real enough to unite some Atlantic empires.

Given this, it is surprising when Schoeppner aligns Trist with the opponents of quarantine laws, such as black newspaper editors who argued black sailors were citizens entitled to free movement. Schoeppner suggests both parties envisioned citizenship as a status that might obligate a government to protect individuals, but it's important that Trist considered [End Page 314] yet declined to make public an argument that black men were citizens. Most American authorities would have found it unacceptable for a U.S. diplomat to claim that black men were entitled...


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