The Challenge of Litigating Freedom




Book Review of: Loren Schweninger, Appealing for Liberty: Freedom Suits in the South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. x + 428 pp. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95.

Recent years have seen the publication of excellent new scholarship on “freedom suits,” legal action by enslaved African Americans to obtain release from bondage. Loren Schweninger’s Appealing for Liberty adds to this growing body of literature by offering unparalleled geographic breadth and temporal scope, making this the most comprehensive book on such suits available. This is not simply a book about slavery, courts, and the law, however. Records of freedom suits, Schweninger explains, are “social and legal history fused” (p. 6) and offer insights into the experiences, values, and desires of enslaved Americans.

Much of the strength of this book derives from Schweninger’s massive source base. Freedom suits are difficult to locate because they are intermixed with other cases in local court records. As a result, most scholarship on freedom suits has focused on a handful of cases or utilized records from a confined geographic region. This book draws on 2,023 lawsuits, involving 4,601 plaintiffs, representing 200 counties in 15 states and the District of Columbia, filed between 1779 and 1863. Schweninger has spent much of his career working to gather this documentary evidence as director of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and founder of the Digital Library on American Slavery.

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© 2020 Project MUSE. Produced by Johns Hopkins University Press in collaboration with The Sheridan Libraries.

DOI: doi:10.1353/rah.2020.0006