Dred Scott and his landmark Supreme court case are ingrained in the
national memory, but he was just one of multitudes who appealed for
their freedom in courtrooms across the country. Appealing for
Liberty is the first study of its kind to give voice to these
African Americans, drawing from more than two thousand suits and
from the testimony of more than four thousand plaintiffs from the
Revolutionary Era to the Civil War. Through the petitions,
evidence, and testimony introduced in these court proceedings, the
lives of the enslaved come sharply and poignantly into focus, as do
many other aspects of southern society. This book depicts in
graphic terms, the pain, suffering, fears, and trepidations of the
plaintiffs while discussing the legal system-lawyers, judges,
juries, and testimony-that made judgments on their "causes," as the
suits were often called. Arguments for freedom were diverse: slaves
brought suits claiming they had been freed in wills and deeds, were
born of free mothers, were descendants of free white women or
Indian women; they charged that they were illegally imported to
some states or were residents of the free states and territories.
Those who testified on their behalf-usually against leaders of the
communities-were generally white. So too were the lawyers who took
these cases, many of them men of prominence, such as Francis Scott
Key. More often than not, these men were slave owners
themselves-complicating our understanding of race relations in the
antebellum period. A majority of the cases examined here were not
appealed, nor did they create important judicial precedent. Indeed,
most of the cases ended at the county, circuit, or district court
level of various southern states. Yet the narratives of both those
who gained their freedom and those who failed to do so, and the
issues their suits raised, shed a bold and timely light on the
history of race and liberty in the "land of the free."
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