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An Incomplete Freedom: Social Facts, Legal Fictions, and the Law of Slavery in Antebellum Louisiana

An Incomplete Freedom: Social Facts, Legal Fictions, and the Law of Slavery in Antebellum Louisiana
1 Devonshire Place, Room 208N
Time: Sep 27th, 2:00 pm End: Sep 27th, 4:00 pm
Interest Categories: United States Studies, Political Science, Philosophy (UTSC), Philosophy (UTM), Philosophy (FAS), Law, Faculty of , History (FAS), Historical Studies (UTM), Historical and Cultural Studies (UTSC), Ethics, Diaspora/Transnational, African, 1900-1950, 1800-1900
Lecture by Rebecca Scott, University of Michigan

The Centre for the Study of the United States and the Department of History are pleased to present:

Rebecca J. Scott

An Incomplete Freedom: Social Facts, Legal Fictions, and the Law of Slavery in Antebellum Louisiana


Was slavery in the 19th century Americas coterminous with the legal ownership of property in persons, or should we instead separate the exercise of the powers that attach to ownership from the state’s recognition of the person as a slave? Eulalie Oliveau was born to an enslaved mother during the period of Spanish colonial rule in Louisiana, released to live as a free woman around 1812, and then, forty years later, kidnapped and offered for sale in the New Orleans slave market. Along with her children and grandchildren she brought suit in district court, arguing for a right to freedom by “prescription”—based on her long years lived as free. She won her suit, but her captors appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court. The Louisiana Supreme Court in 1856 released the family from their captors, but ruled that disallowing a claim of property over a person on the grounds of “prescription” did not thereby confer free status. The Court, in effect, would not confer a state-recognized freedom, even when no legal claim to ownership over her existed. When we look behind the decision at the attorney who insisted upon imposing this twilight civil status, we glimpse an ominous foreshadowing of the strategies of the white-supremacist bar in New Orleans that would later spearhead the post-Civil War legal assault on federal and state protection of the rights of freed people.

Rebecca J. Scott is the Charles Gibson Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Law at the University of Michigan. She is co-author, with Jean M. Hébrard, of Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation (Harvard University Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association. She has recently been working on the legal history of slavery, and her essay “Paper Thin: Freedom and Re-enslavement in the Diaspora of the Haitian Revolution,” Law and History Review (November 2011), received the 2012 Surrency Prize from the American Society for Legal History. Her earlier books include Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2005), and Slave Emancipation in Cuba (Princeton University Press, 1985).


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Registration is strongly recommended for this event. Seating is available on a first-come, first-seated basis. To register, please click HERE.

For further information about this event, please contact the Centre for the Study of the United States at (416) 946-8972.

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