Slaves and the Court, 1740-1860 includes approximately 100 documents (all published between 1772 and 1889) concerning legal issues confronted by African and African-American slaves as well as legislators, officers of the law, abolitionists, and slave-holders. Prominent among the documents are records of court cases, including arguments, testimony, judicial opinions, and analyses of cases and decisions. The collection covers some of the best-known cases of the era, such as the Anthony Burns, John Brown, and Dred Scott cases, but many lesser known cases are also presented. Among the prominent Americans whose words can be found in the collection are John Quincy Adams, Roger B. Taney, John C. Calhoun, Salmon P. Chase, William Garrison, and Francis Scott Key.
A large number of the cases deal with the Fugitive Slave Law and its enforcement; other topics include the ending of the slave trade, criminal prosecutions of slave-holders for mistreatment of slaves, regulating the expansion of slavery into the territories, and slave rebellions. The cases represented in the collection raise a panoply of fundamental constitutional issues—property rights, separation of powers, state’s rights, rule of law, natural law, the independent judiciary, freedom of speech, trial by jury, popular sovereignty, the meaning of citizenship, cruel and unusual punishment, and freedom of religion, among others. The collection is strongest in presenting material related to the 40 years preceding the onset of the Civil War.
On the collection’s home page, the Library of Congress reminds users that “These primary historical documents reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these collections, which may contain materials offensive to some readers.” Teachers would do well to prepare students to deal with the documents’ depiction of these attitudes.
Depending on how teachers plan to use this collection, it may be helpful to create a chalkboard timeline of major events in the history of slavery in the United States. These events might include the following events and/or others of your own choosing. As students examine documents in the collection and learn more about the issues and events represented in the documents, they can add information to the timeline or simply refer to the timeline to provide a context for the documents.
A Few Selected Events in the History of Slavery in the United States
- 1501 — Spanish settlers bring first African slaves to the New World (Santo Domingo).
- 1562 — The British join the slave trade.
- 1581 — African slaves are brought to Florida by Spanish settlers in St. Augustine.
- 1619 — African slaves are brought to Jamestown.
- 1638 — New England slave trade begins.
- 1662 — Virginia law establishes that children of black mothers are slaves if their mothers are slaves, free if their mothers are free.
- 1712 — Slaves in New York City revolt; the revolt is put down by the militia.
- 1739 — Slaves in South Carolina revolt. Again, the revolt is put down by the militia.
- 1775 — First abolitionist society founded in Philadelphia.
- 1775-1783 — American Revolution.
- 1787 — Constitution is written.
- 1793 — First Fugitive Slave Act makes it a crime to interfere with efforts to capture runaway slaves.
- 1808 — United States bans the slave trade; smuggling continues.
- 1820 — Missouri Compromise forbids slavery in new territories north of latitude 36° 30’.
- 1822 — Denmark Vesey leads a slave revolt in Charleston.
- 1831 — Nat Turner leads a slave revolt in Virginia.
- 1850 — Compromise of 1850 establishes a Fugitive Slave Law giving greater power to federal authorities in exchange for admission of California to the union as a free state.
- 1854 — Kansas-Nebraska Act sets aside the Missouri Compromise and lets these two new territories decide whether they will allow slavery.
- 1857 — In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court says that blacks cannot be citizens and that Congress has no power to outlaw slavery in any territory.
- 1861-1865 — Civil War.
- 1863 — President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederate States.
- 1865 — The 13th amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery in the United States.