David Center for the American Revolution Seminar: "Somerset, the State, and Reciprocal Rights in American Abolitionism" with Evan Turiano

3:00 - 4:30 p.m. ET

Register for this event online via Zoom.

November 8, 2023

3:00 - 4:30 p.m. ET

Evan Turiano

The third 2023-2024 David Center for the American Revolution Seminar will take place November 8, 2023 at 3:00 p.m. ET on Zoom.

The speaker will be Evan Turiano. Evan is the 2023 Walter O. Evans Fellow at the Yale University Beinecke Library. His dissertation, completed at the Graduate Center, CUNY, in 2022, was awarded the 2023 College of Charleston Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program Hines Prize as well as the 2023 St. George Tucker Society Bradford-Delaney Dissertation Prize. His first book, on the politics of fugitive slave rendition, is under advance contract with Louisiana State University Press.

Evan will be presenting his paper titled: "Somerset, the State, and Reciprocal Rights in American Abolitionism". A description of the paper is below. The paper will be pre-circulated to registered participants in advance of the seminar meeting. 

To attend the seminar and to receive a copy of the paper, please register via Zoom. 

The David Center for the American Revolution Seminar serves as a forum for works-in-progress that explore topics in the era of the American Revolution (1750-1820). Questions about the series may be directed to Adrianna Link, Head of Scholarly Programs, at [email protected]

NOTE: Seminars are designed as spaces for sharing ideas and works still in-progress. For this reason, this event will not be recorded.

Among the many arguments that James Somerset’s legal team put forth in his famous bid for freedom, one simple claim loomed large. Somerset’s subjection to the King’s legal regime, his barristers insisted time and again, entitled him to a degree of protection incompatible with enslavement. This doctrine, which I call the reciprocal rights principle, holds an important and understudied place in the history of rights, citizenship, and slavery in the Revolutionary era Anglo-American legal world. It proved to be a powerful tool for Black people accused of having escaped slavery who claimed legal rights to defend their freedom. Conversely, it was dangerous to slaveholders who sought to construct a legal system that tied race to an airtight property status.

When the reciprocal rights principle crossed the Atlantic, it was transformed in profound ways. It survived, not as legal precedent, but as evocative political messaging. It developed further when activists seeking to expand its political salience re-emphasized that reciprocal allegiance and protection were a foundation of sovereignty. These transformations placed it at the heart of emergent antislavery mass politics, even as it came under increasing proslavery attack. When the federal government finally intervened between slaveholders and enslaved people during the American Civil War, leaders pointed to enslaved people’s allegiance—and the reciprocal rights they were owed—as a key factor.

This type of rights claim was very different from those historian’s typically locate in the Revolutionary era. It upends prior understandings of the relationship between British subjecthood and the “citizenship revolution” that the American Revolution wrought. For white, propertied men who viewed citizenship as a matter of status associated with power, the transition from obligated subjecthood to chosen citizenship was revolutionary. Black communities that looked to the state for a suite of protections, on the other hand, remained engaged in an ongoing fight from the seventeenth century to associate British subjecthood, and the legal submissions it entailed, with a dependable set of protective rights against individual domination—the sort of protections Somerset proved could pose a real threat to the slaveholder’s property right. Building
on Holly Brewer’s scholarship, I will show that Black communities after the Revolution drew on
Somerset’s legacy to appeal for the same protections—on account of the same subjections—as
British subjects when struggling for legal rights in the American political system.

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