Litigating the Lash: Quaker Emancipator Robert Pleasants, the Law of Slavery and the Meaning of Manumission in Revolutionary and Early National Virginia.
Hardin, William Fernandez
This dissertation seeks to throw open the courtroom doors and show how ordinary people—black and white, free and enslaved—shaped the law of manumission at a critical moment in American history. It is a detailed legal, cultural and family history of the Virginia case of Pleasants v. Pleasants (1799), in which Robert Pleasants sued his nieces, nephews, siblings and cousins for the freedom of over four hundred slaves in the Virginia Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal in the largest manumission case in American history. The court upheld Pleasants’s claim that his father’s and brother’s wills had set the slaves free. During the dispute, the family members advanced legal arguments and notions of property that found their way into the legal proceedings. The background of the case—Quaker antislavery, the events of the Revolution, the actions of the enslaved, and popular understandings of law and justice—became the context in which judges had to apply the law. Formalistic property concerns helped to mask considerations of race and freedom, but could not completely cover the judges’ uncertainty as to the ambiguous relationship between law and slavery. The legal elite had to disentangle property rights from the principles of equality and by doing so, they fashioned the legal ligaments necessary for a slaveholding republic by defining manumission in terms of a master’s property interest, rather than a slave’s right to freedom.