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)

Digitization and 19th Century Newspapers, continued thoughts.

So in thinking more about how I might go about using some kind of spatial mapping to demonstrate the relative importance of the self-enslavement laws in comparison with the re-opening of the African slave trade, the admission of Kansas as a free state, I’ve come across some really great stuff from other people who have thought (and acted) much more deeply on these issues than I have.

In a joint venture between Stanford University and University of North Texas, Mapping Texts assesses patterns for hundreds of thousands of pages of Texas newspapers, from 1829 to 2008. I haven’t found a way to do very much with it just yet, but it’s something I’m going to look into, to see if there is a way I can get “under the hood” so to speak. One interesting thing I noticed in a preliminary assessment is that between 1856 and 1861, ‘Kansas’ is one of the top 30 most frequently named entity’s, higher than every other state other than Texas (of course,) and New York.

Another post that has less of a bearing on the issues I’m working through but is still interesting is two posts from April 2011 about how changing database construction in America’s Historical Newspapers as it pertains to the way in which advertisements are identified and counted as articles can skew results.

I’m glad I’m really starting to think critically about how these databases are constructed, not just about the images they contain. And I’m glad so many other people have gotten there first.

Methodology, Technology, and Historical Newspaper Databases

The use of newspaper databases (America’s Historical Newspapers, for example) has in many ways drastically changed the way historians conduct research.  No longer doomed to pore over microfilm day by day, column by column hoping we find something useful, historians/we can now utilize strategic keyword searches—for this project, phrases like “going into slavery” and “chose + master”—to find the articles we’re looking for, or figure out they don’t exist.  Historians like Matthew Rainbow Hale and Carol Lasser have used these databases in truly innovative ways, using the frequency of appearance of certain keywords to support their arguments about the shape of discourses regarding political time and antislavery rhetoric, respectively.[1]  These scholars should be applauded for their unique use of new technologies to substantiate their claims; however, in researching the ways that Texas’s self-enslavement law of 1858 relates to the wider defense of slavery in the state, and the South, I have realized a potential pitfall of using these databases.

Part of the way I am organizing my argument is in interpreting self-enslavement laws not through the lens of free blacks’ social position, but by placing them in the context of proslavery rhetoric.  The passage of voluntary enslavement laws across the South in the late 1850s makes infinitely more sense when considered in conjunction with the historiography of the southern defense of slavery, and proslavery thought more generally.  Herein lies one of the issues with digital newspaper databases: a researcher could easily find stories of self-enslavement from across the South through a keyword search, and take these to reflect an increasing desperation among free blacks in the 1850’s, or a sudden decision by southern states to enforce existing free black expulsion statutes.  To a certain extent, that should be mitigated against simply from taking the same caution with newspapers that we do with other sources, that’s fairly clear; but it is only by viewing these newspapers in full, and looking at dozens of issues in which self-enslavement stories don’t appear, that what I would argue is their proper context can be understood.

Stories of voluntary enslavement appear sporadically in southern newspapers in the late 1850s, but with nowhere near the frequency, nor the importance, ascribed to them by Ira Berlin.[2]  In Texas at least, self-enslavement stories typically seemed to be extremely short, and almost never appeared on the front page.  In contrast, stories about the need to re-open the African slave trade, the admission of Kansas to the Union, and the scarcity and high price of slave labor (among others) all take up drastically more attention, and space, in the columns of Texas newspapers.  The ability to get straight to self-enslavement stories through keyword searches sometimes risks allowing historians to skip over the forest, and get straight to the trees.

I am trying to determine if there is a methodology that will allow me to more scientifically highlight the discrepancy in importance between self-enslavement stories and the reopening of the slave trade, for example, in Texas’s proslavery periodicals.  Hale, for instance, puts together a table in which he tracks references to certain key phrases, and how those references changed over time.  Hales methodology has its own inherent drawbacks, but since self-enslavement articles and others generally defending slavery as a “positive good” tend to use similar language, I’m not sure this approach would work well for my purposes.  I have considered either using multiple papers within a small date-range surrounding the passage of the law, or a single paper over a greater period of time, to compare the surface area of the paper taken up by various issues.  If we assume editors gave more, and more prominent, space in the paper to the issues of greatest importance, I could perhaps come up with a formula in which each line, and each column was assigned a particular value, depending on which page it appeared: 50 lines on page 1 would be weighted as more important than 50 lines on page 4, etc.  This is something I am attempting to work through, but I think it could ultimately provide a nice graphic representation of the ways in which self-enslavement was a part, but only a very small part, of the wider defense of the institution of slavery, if coupled with a more traditional evidence base.

[1] Matthew Rainbow Hale, “On Their Tiptoes: Political Time and Newspapers during the Advent of the Radicalized French Revolution, circa 1792–1793,” Journal of the Early Republic, 29, no. 2 (2009), 191–218”; Carol Lasser, “Voyeuristic Abolitionism: Sex, Gender, and the Transformation of Antislavery Rhetoric,” Journal of the Early Republic, 28, no. 1 (2008), 83–114.

[2] Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 366–67.

Proslavery Christianity

So in delving more deeply into Charles Irons’s argument, I think I may have found an important element that bears on my research project here.  In discussing Thornton Stringfellow’s Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery, he notes that part of Stringfellow’s argument is that enslavement is necessary for the conversion of blacks to Christianity.

Irons states that Stringfellow “was not content, as some in the early national period had been, to argue that evangelicals could make the most of a flawed institution by trying to proselytize slaves.  Instead, he assumed that slavery in the Bible corresponded to American slavery.  Moreover, he asserted that the status of black Americans as slaves was a necessary link in the chain that led to their conversion.  Breaking that link, as abolitionists threatened to do, would disrupt the mission and probably result in catastrophic loss of life.” (my bold, obviously)

If slavery is a necessary pre-condition for black conversion to Christianity, this puts self-enslavement laws in a different light.  One could view them as a necessary legal maneuver to allow for making free blacks into good Christians.  I’m not sure this is the whole impetus behind passing them, but some of the language in Texas newspapers discussing how they are not reluctant supporters of slavery gives credence to that conclusion I think.  For instance, on February 10, 1858—just 2 weeks after the final passage of the self-enslavement law—the Houston Weekly Telegraph argued that “[s]lavery is right in itself,” and more importantly that “slaves are far better as such, than wild negroes in Africa….As slaves, they are humanized and Christianized to a degree entirely unattainable by them as a race in any other condition.  Slaves are better off as such than in a state of freedom in America.”

The key phrase, it seems, is that the “humanization” and “Christianization” offered by slavery is “entirely unattainable,” in the mind of the author, by free blacks in America.

Edit: Stringfellow’s pamphlet/book is published in 1856, as is William A. Smith’s Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery that takes a view similar to that of Stringfellow. In the same year, Virginia’s state legislature passes their self-enslavement law. Just a thought.

Proslavery Historiography

In looking towards a different historiographical strand, the argument of my paper has become clearer.  As discussed last week, the historiography of free blacks in the Old South discusses self-enslavement laws, with older works using the laws as an example of free blacks’ precarious, deteriorating social position in the late 1850s, and newer historiography demonstrating that the laws were rarely utilized, and tell us very little about free blacks lived experiences.

My argument last week was that historians of free blacks fail to recognize the role self-enslavement laws played in southerners’ broader defense of slavery, as they felt it becoming increasingly besieged in the late 1850s.  Fortunately for this research paper, historians of proslavery arguments fail to recognize their importance as well.  While books like Charles F. Irons’s The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia, and Larry E. Tise’s Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840, provide fantastic analyses of the ways southerners (and Americans more generally) attempted to justify and defend the institution of slavery, they do not acknowledge the (admittedly small) role played by self-enslavement  laws in the support of proslavery rhetoric.

This research paper, then, will attempt to “rescue” self-enslavement laws from the historiography on free blacks, and place it in its proper context within the historiography on proslavery rhetoric.  I feel like I have done a sufficient amount of primary source research into the passage and discussion of self-enslavement laws in Texas and other newspapers, and am now attempting to figure out exactly how the language of these newspaper discussions fits in with the historiography on proslavery arguments.  Any other suggestions on how these self-enslavement laws might fit with the arguments of particular authors, or specific books that might be helpful, would be greatly appreciated.

Rough introduction

I have written a rough introduction to my paper, and I’d like some feedback.  In the actual paper, my historiography coverage will be more in depth, I just wanted to get the broad contours for this first draft.  Specifically, I’d like feedback on two things: is my argument about the significance of Texas’s self-enslavement law clear? And also, perhaps more importantly, after reading this introduction, how do you think an argument like that will need to be supported by the evidence? You can give me feedback in the comments, or just in class tomorrow. 


On January 27, 1858, the Texas Legislature passed “An Act to permit Free persons of African descent, to select their own Master and become Slaves.”  Historians have often analyzed these laws in an effort to assess transformations in the social position of free blacks within southern communities.  Randolph B. Campbell argues in his seminal text on slavery in Texas that the self-enslavement law of 1858 reflected white fears about the influence of free blacks on Texas’s slave population, and their notions that blacks were suited only for slavery.[1]  Ira Berlin seems less sure than Campbell that the passage self-enslavement laws in the South offer a lens through which to view free blacks’ social position, and posits, rather, that they served as a way for whites to “affirm their most cherished belief…of the positive-good” of slavery.[2]  Berlin argues that “[n]ewspapers throughout the South avidly spread enslavement stories.  The 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.”[3]  Melvin Patrick Ely largely agrees with this assessment, contending that while many regard self-enslavement laws as reflective of blacks’ declining position, Virginia’s law “signified little.  The state’s self-enslavement law may not even qualify as a concession to white popular sentiment, for it seems to have won little attention at the time.”[4]

Texas’s self-enslavement law tells us little about the experiences of free blacks in the state.  While a few free blacks in the state took the legislature up on this dubious privilege, their court petitions seem to tell us little about the motivating factors, as they generally echoed abstract, white, pro-slavery ideas towards free blacks, if they said anything at all.  What we can glean from the law’s passage, and subsequent newspaper reports of its use, is the way in which it served a rhetorical purpose for Texas pro-slavery advocates, as they felt the institution of slavery becoming increasingly besieged in the late 1850s.  While Berlin is for the most part correct in his contention that southern newspapers highlighted self-enslavement stories as “jewels” to be displayed for the public, self-enslavement stories received nowhere near the press coverage as other issues in their defense of slavery.  Articles discussing self-enslavement pale in comparison to those espousing the benefits of re-opening the slave trade, expressing concerns about the admission of non-slaveholding states to the Union and anxiety about the high price and scarcity of slave labor.

Historians’ desire, my own included, to understand the free black experience in the old South has masked what seems to be the real significance of self-enslavement laws.  Through an analysis of the content of Texas newspapers during the late 1850s and early 1860s, there exists a clear and growing urgency in mounting various defenses of slavery.  The most popular defense took the form of highlighting slavery as a having a positive influence on the enslaved, so much so that they argued that the African slave trade should be re-opened, so that slavery could Christianize and civilize as many blacks as possible.  Another popular defense of slavery as a labor system was the poor social and economic position of free blacks in the North, highlighting their incapacity as productive laborers.  It is only within this larger newspaper campaign to defend the institution of slavery that Texas’s self-enslavement law can be properly understood.  The existence of self-enslavement laws across the South allowed states to cite repeatedly the infrequent examples of free blacks choosing to return to slavery, as a part of their attempt to highlight the benefits of the institution.  Self-enslavement laws allowed southern newspapers to make important rhetorical maneuvers as a part of their much larger pro-slavery campaign in the late 1850s.

Texas’s self-enslavement law as well brings to light an interesting methodological issue, concerning scholars’ use of internet databases in historical investigations centered around newspapers and periodicals.  While these databases are extremely valuable in making hundreds of years of often difficult to acquire newspapers available on-demand, search results can often obscure larger, and more important stories within the documents.  While all of the articles discussing self-enslavement can be accessed through keyword searches—using terms like “return to slavery,” “choose master,” and “become slaves”—those results can be deceiving.  Singling out those articles, fairly easy to do through a database like America’s Historical Newspapers, obscures the fact that self-enslavement stories constituted only a small part of a larger campaign to defend the institution of slavery.

[1] Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 113.

[2] Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 366.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 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), 373–74.