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Washington Early American Seminar Series: William Thomas - February 7

Taliaferro Hall 2110: The Berlin Room
Friday, February 7, 2020 - 4:00 PM

William Thomas (University of Nebraska)

“Maryland Freedom Suits: African American Families Who Challenged Slavery.”

Respondent: Holly Hynson (Maryland)


William Thomas is professor of history and the Angle Chair in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Lincoln Prize Finalist, and has won numerous grants from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has recently helped edit and publish online a remarkable database of freedom suits for the DC/Maryland Area http://earlywashingtondc.org/. He was a co-editor of the award-winning Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War and is currently producing a series of animated historical films available at animatinghistory.com.  His paper for February 7 is from chapter 3 of his book, which is under contract with Yale University Press.  He has provided the following abstract.

            "Out of the Vineyard tells the story of the longest and most complex challenge to slavery in American legal history. Spanning over seventy years and five generations, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, the enslaved families of Prince George's County, Maryland, attempted to bend American society toward freedom. In many ways they succeeded. These families sued for their freedom against a powerful circle of slaveholders, beginning with the Jesuit priests who owned some of the largest plantations in the nation and founded a college at Georgetown on the Potomac River. In dozens of cases they won their freedom in the Maryland courts. But the Jesuits and other slaveholders fought every freedom suit in a desperate battle over the legitimacy of slavery itself. Stalled in Maryland, the enslaved families filed new freedom suits in Washington, D.C., enlisted Francis Scott Key as their lawyer, and took their cause to the Supreme Court of the United States. Between 1815 and 1850 these freedom suits challenged the legitimacy of slavery in American law and put slavery on trial in the nation's capital. But with cotton and sugar plantations booming in the Louisiana Territory, slaveholders set out to make the idea of human property ever more secure under the U.S. Constitution. By the 1830s even reformers like Francis Scott Key had turned from the universal ideals of Revolutionary liberty to the hardened justifications of racial slavery.

            Vineyard shows us that from the very beginning of the United States slaves sued slaveholders in every court available to them and in every jurisdiction they could reach. Long before the Dred Scott decision, these cases were carried from one generation to the next. Each distilled the essence of the freedom struggle into a stark, if clarifying, confrontation between the enslaved and the enslaver. Blacks wanted freedom. And slaveholders wanted to keep them enslaved.

            An intensely human and intricate story about the moral problem of slavery, Vineyard offers an attempt to repair American history by piecing together evidence long ago dismissed in court and buried in the archives. Vineyard is also a memoir-like exploration of the author's own family and an unflinching attempt to reckon with the history of slavery in American society today.

            Chapter 3 of Vineyard (excerpted below) follows the legal arguments in the one of the most important freedom suits heard in Maryland -- Mahoney v. Ashton. It argues that African American litigants sought to connect their freedom struggle primarily to the line of English common law argument made in the Somerset case and the line of earlier decisions by Lord Holt in the seventeenth century. The Mahoney trials revealed the stakes in the freedom suits in Maryland. Rival political factions used the case to advance competing arguments about the legitimacy of slavery. Slaveholders used every means at their disposal to defeat the Mahoneys. And the Mahoneys through three jury trials sought to establish a single fact -- that their ancestor set foot in England -- a fact that, if proven, could bring the entire body of English common law on slavery into the Maryland courts."