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Title page for ETD etd-04112018-083318

Type of Document Master's Thesis
Author Fletcher, Jessica Sarah
URN etd-04112018-083318
Title "A World in Miniature:" Slavery and Freedom, Empire and Law, and Atlantic Identities in Freedom-Claiming across the Antebellum South
Degree Master of Arts
Department Latin American Studies
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Jane Landers Committee Chair
Kimberly Welch Committee Member
  • subjecthood
  • empire
  • slavery
  • freedom
  • law
  • Atlantic World
  • legal history
Date of Defense 2018-03-14
Availability unrestricted
In the antebellum American South, slaves and free blacks from across the Atlantic World went to court to petition for their freedom from illegal enslavement. US legal officials primarily cared whether or not slaves could prove their free status in court and, to that end, petitioners made legal claims that reflected themselves and their identities as free persons. They emphasized to courts that they were born free, emancipated or manumitted, and had freedom papers. To support these claims, petitioners also created narratives that would represent their identities as free persons and common examples included telling legal officials that they previously moved freely in the Atlantic, served in the military, or worked in skilled labor positions. Another way that petitioners articulated their status and identity as free persons was by telling legal officials about their connections to Atlantic empires. To petitioners, being a member of Iberian, French, or British empires and enjoying imperial subjecthood was closely connected to their identities as free persons.

This thesis examines freedom suits in the antebellum US South by slaves and free blacks from across the Atlantic World and the ways they created legal narratives connected to their identities within nineteenth-century empires. Ultimately, legal officials were most concerned with whether or not petitioners could prove their free status - not where they belonged in the Atlantic World, to what empires they pledged loyalty, or what king recognized them as subjects. Therefore, petitioners created narratives centered around proving their freedom. However, slaves and free blacks continued to incorporate notions of Atlantic empires and subjecthood in their freedom petitions to varying degrees - even if it served little legal strategical purpose to a US court. Their narratives illuminate the importance that imperial belonging and subjecthood represented to slaves and free blacks from the Atlantic World petitioning for freedom in the US South and demonstrate that they understood imperial belonging and subjecthood as a way to embody their identities and experiences as free persons.

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