Self-Enslavement Laws: Introduction and Initial Historiography Review

What follows is a rough, preliminary introduction to my research paper on Texas’s self-enslavement law of 1858, and how it fits into the proslavery rhetoric of the late 1850s. Any comments on structure, style, or anything else would be greatly appreciated. I will be updating this post over the next 24 hours as I add to it, primarily by adding int he proslavery historiography in addition to the free blacks historiography outlined below. Just wanted to get something up 24 hours in advance of class.

Late in 1857, Austin’s State Gazette published an article under the title “A Right Move,” discussing the introduction of a bill into the Texas state legislature that would allow free blacks in Texas to voluntarily enslave themselves to masters of their own choosing.  Or, as the Gazette phrased it, the bill would allow “free negroes to return to their original state of slavery.”  The author continued, noting that “free negroes live in a state of great wretchedness and destitution in the North, who under such a law would be glad to return to slavery.”[1]  Despite the author’s celebration of the introduction of the bill, and his lament of the condition of free blacks in the North, mention of self-enslavement would not appear again in the pages of the State Gazette for over a year, when they reported two stories of free blacks voluntarily enslaving themselves.  In the interim, items stressing the need to reopen the African Slave Trade, the dangers of California and Kansas being admitted as free states, and depictions of black incapacity for freedom filled the pages of the State Gazette.

Self-enslavement laws have typically only been analyzed by historians of free blacks, as they try to piece together often disparate data points to gain insight into free blacks’ social and cultural worlds, especially in the lead up to the civil war.  Though historians’ treatment of self-enslavement laws often provides a summary dismissal of their relation to the reality of free blacks’ lived experiences or acknowledges how they either supported or reflected proslavery ideology, the discussion of these laws seems to be trapped in a historiography within which they cannot be fully understood.  Though a small number of free blacks in the South voluntarily enslaved themselves, the law served a much broader purpose than allowing free blacks a legal mechanism by which they could enter into slavery.

By divorcing self-enslavement laws from the study of free blacks, and instead viewing them from the perspective of wider southern political debates over the future of slavery in the 1850s, these laws appear to have a much different purpose: they allowed southern proslavery ideologues to make certain rhetorical maneuvers, highlighting slavery as a benevolent institution that made blacks into good Christians, provided them moral guidance, taught them necessary habits of industry and discipline, and prevented social and political discord.

Historians often conflate the passage of self-enslavement laws with black decisions to utilize them.  By viewing more critically the way self-enslavement laws fit in with a broader proslavery ideology, the adoption of self-enslavement laws by state legislatures between 1856 and 1860 highlights the influence of South-wide debates in state capitols, and the way debates there in turn influenced regional ideology.  While self-enslavement laws functioned as a boon to proslavery ideology, their discussion often took a back seat to other proslavery issues in the press.  These broader proslavery arguments are addressed in an extensive historiography on proslavery thought, but that historiography completely ignores the way the passage and discussion of self-enslavement laws fits within that framework.  What we are left with, then, is two parallel strains of historiography speaking past each other.  Historians of free blacks, when they view self-enslavement laws as indicative of something beyond free blacks’ social experience, view them as proslavery thought in isolation; meanwhile, the historiography discussing proslavery ideology and rhetoric fails to acknowledge the way self-enslavement laws represent an important aspect of the development of that strain of thought, especially the way in which national and state-level debates mutually reinforced one another.

In his discussion of self-enslavement laws in Texas in particular, Randolph B. Campbell takes them largely at face value.  He notes that after years of lax enforcement of the state’s 1840 free black expulsion law, free blacks’ social position became far more tenuous in the 1850s.  He cites the passage of the self-enslavement law in 1858 as an indication that “the legislature had made its point of view clear: free Negroes constituted an unwelcome anomaly in Texas.  Only a few would be allowed to remain in the state, and those would be encouraged to return to their ‘natural condition’ as slaves.”[2]  Like other scholars, Campbell takes a remarkably narrow view of Texas’s self-enslavement law, seeing it as reflective of the free blacks’ lived experiences, and their declining social position in the 1850s in Texas.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Melvin Patrick Ely, in what has been one of the most transformative recent books about the southern free black experience, sees Virginia’s 1856 self-enslavement law as indicative of very little, as far as free blacks’ lived realities are concerned, and thus dismisses the enactment of the law as inconsequential.  “Today, people regard that enactment as a sign of Afro-Virginians’ deteriorating position,” Ely argues, “but the actual history of the statute suggests that laws signified little.”[3]  Ely alludes to those taking a position similar to Campbell’s, arguing instead that most Virginians probably did not even know the law existed.  He points to the procedural safeguards included in the law against coercion as indicative of the care with which Virginia’s legislators tampered with black freedom.

Ely is probably correct in his assessment that Virginia’s self-enslavement law reflects little of free black’s social experience in the state, but if he viewed the law and its associated discussion in periodicals more broadly, he would see that the law in fact signified a great deal about white proslavery rhetoric.  Self-enslavement laws fit in perfectly with proslavery arguments about the benevolence of the institution of slavery.  When viewed with an eye towards political culture, the “procedural obstacles” highlighted by Ely as an indication of the laws lack of significance to free black’s social position can be seen as the product of debate within the southern Democratic party.

In his recent legal history of slavery and manumission in the antebellum South, Andrew Fede assesses the petitions submitted to southern courts in response to the passage self-enslavement laws in southern states, and argues that they “speak eloquently of the dilemma that free blacks faced in the late antebellum South.  The Southern legislatures adopted statutes that so limited free black legal rights and social standing that petitioners of both sexes and all ages found slavery to be a better alternative.”[4]  Fede acknowledges the fact that proslavery Legislators and newspaper editors viewed self-enslavement stories as “triumphs of slavery over freedom,” but still places his focus on the social experiences of free blacks, noting that self-enslavement petitions were actually “a result of the unjust laws that provided free blacks with inferior legal rights.”[5]  Fede thus presents the a false dichotomy—the “triumph of slavery” on the one hand, and free black social experiences on the other—when in reality both could potentially be true, as the proslavery objective of self-enslavement laws exist irrespective of the reasons a small number of free blacks may have utilized them.  Historians like Fede have failed to distinguish decisions by free blacks to enslave themselves with white proslavery advocates’ reasoning behind providing them the legal mechanisms to do so.

Likewise, Judith Kelleher Schafer views free black petitions to enslave themselves as evidence that “[a]s the 1850s wore on, free people of color found themselves increasingly despised and feared for their allegedly corrupting influence on slaves,” at least in New Orleans.[6]  Like Fede, Schafer draws only a very thin distinction between the decision by free blacks to enslave themselves to masters of their choosing, and legislators’ decision to pass self-enslavement laws.  Schafer acknowledges that the passage of such laws “showed how thoroughly proslavery logic had conquered the lawmakers,” and that they “represented the culmination of the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery—that people of African descent lived happily as slaves and found freedom inconvenient or miserable.”[7]  Schafer rightly acknowledges that self-enslavement laws and stories served the proslavery cause, but she fails to fully explain how these laws fit within a wider framework of proslavery rhetoric and ideology.

Ira Berlin presents perhaps the most measured assessment of self-enslavement as it relates to southern proslavery rhetoric.  Berlin argues that southern newspapers highlighted self-enslavement stories because the stories “verified the sanctity of their ideals.”  Berlin acknowledges the fact that very few free blacks actually utilized these laws, and asserts that this “disproportion of interest to reality suggests that they searched these stories out as jewels to be collected, polished, and displayed as evidence of the beneficence of their society.”[8]  Again, Berlin is right to connect self-enslavement stories to proslavery ideology, but he, like Schafer, does not demonstrate how exactly self-enslavement laws and stories fit within that context.  Further, Berlin seems to oversell the prominence of such stories in southern newspapers, when in fact they generally take a back seat to other, more important issues, making self-enslavement stories like jewels in another sense: their rarity.

[1] Austin State Gazette, Nov. 28, 1857, p. 1. The State Gazette is also referred to as the Texas State Gazette.(go back)

[2] Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 113­–14.(go back)

[3] Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Slavery and Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War, (New York: Knopf Press, 2005), 373. (go back)

[4] Andrew Fede, Roadblocks to Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in the United States, (New Orleans: Quid Pro LLC, 2011), 114–16.(go back)

[5] Ibid., 116.(go back)

[6] Judith Kelleher Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846–1862, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 145.(go back)

[7] Ibid., 150.(go back)

[8] Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 367.(go back)

3 thoughts on “Self-Enslavement Laws: Introduction and Initial Historiography Review

  1. This introduction is shaping up nicely, John. I especially like the paragraph that begins with the sentence, “Historians often conflate the passage of self-enslavement laws with black decisions to utilize them.” That paragraph seems to nicely summarize the main points you want to make about the way each strain of historiography has approached the laws. The opening sentence of the paragraph could be clearer, however. Based on a later sentence in the draft, I think what you mean is “Historians often conflate the reasons for the passage of self-enslavement laws with the reasons for the scattered and scarce black decisions to utilize them.”

    I also really like the last sentence of the Berlin paragraph. I think it might be worth moving that up somehow, because it shows what historians of free black Southerners miss by viewing the laws as “proslavery thought in isolation”–namely, they miss how small a part these laws were in a broader strategy of getting the Democratic Party and white southerners as a whole to subscribe to a particular set of proslavery ideals.

    In a later draft, I think you may be able to shorten the paragraphs summarizing each historian individually and may even be able to move them to a footnote, citing the names of the historians as representative of the broad positions you stake out in the paragraphs before you go into your summaries of each person.

    One thing I think would be worthy of future research is the State Gazette‘s comment on free black Northerners. That’s interesting for two reasons: one, it seems like the sort of point historians of free black Southerners would miss entirely, and it raises the possibility that the laws were shaped more (or as much) by a perception of the “tenuous social position” of free blacks in the North, and two, disputes with abolitionists about the condition of free black communities in the North were a big part of late antebellum debates about slavery. See, for example, Thomas Hietala’s treatment of the debates about the census of 1840 in Manifest Design.

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