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Slavery and the Law

About this Collection

Laws protect the rights of a nation's citizens, but with regards to American slavery, were used as a tool to advance both pro- and anti-slavery efforts. Our understanding of the arc of American slavery and its aftermath is informed, in part, by the push and pull of laws that mark shifting social, political and economic environments.

To look at history solely through the prism of federal law in part distances us from the events that played out in city and county courts across the U.S. Through primary evidence we begin to understand the struggle for African Americans to claim rights secured by law. The documents in this database increase our understanding of what it meant to be enslaved versus free. Special Collections and Archives holds three collections of legal records documenting slavery and freedom through the Civil War.

These collections provide us with evidence of slavery and freedom in the United States, and exhibit the role laws have played in both the institutionalization of slavery and its destruction.
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