The legal world around American slavery

The advertisement for the slavery digital collection

Early October 2016 came a surprising announcement from a firm known for its licensed digital law collections which most users will visit only through on and off-campus access at university and research libraries, national libraries and law firms which can afford the costly yearly subscription rates. Although I have no intent to create here a platform to champion only the cause of Open Access I have tried to avoid writing about materials hidden beyond pay walls, because such blog posts would have a tantalizing effect on many readers. Kluwer, LexisNexis and WestLaw, to mention a few firms dealing with legal materials in many countries, and for the humanities for example Chadwyck, Gale, Adam Matthew and ProQuest have not yet figured here. However, when HeinOnline announced to create free access to its digital collection Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture & Law I immediately registered. I present here a personal tour of this project, well aware that this are experiences after just a few weeks, not the results of someone immersed into this subject over the years. On my blog slavery has appeared a few times as a secondary subject, but until now only once as the main subject of a post, ‘Remembering slavery’, about the abolition of slavery in Suriname in 1863 and its commemoration in 2013.

Making a tour

HeinOnline certainly has done some efforts to make its new collection as inviting as possible. Paul Finkelman (Albany Law School), the general editor of Slavery in America and the World, gives in the advertisement a concise overview of its main qualities. The core of this digital collection are the statutes and reported law cases concerning slavery in America – both on the state and the federal level – and the Anglophone world. There are more than one thousand pamphlets, many books on slavery and legal commentaries dealing with slavery published in essays and articles which are sometimes very difficult to find. In an introductory essay Finkelman discusses the historiographical background. He places the history of American slavery in the context of slavery worldwide, alas a continuing story in view of human trafficking and labor conditions which amount to slavery, and thus the history of slavery is not confined from around 1450 to the late nineteenth century. The collection contains numerous items from the twentieth century, too. Among libraries contributing to the digital collection Finkelman singles out Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

The start screen of the slavery collection

Even without registering you can download the quick reference guide and the full introduction. Mentioning this you might smile like I do remembering the familiar instructions to students not to jump immediately to the matter you are searching for, but to make yourself familiar with a book by reading the preface and acknowledgements, scanning the chapters, checking for a bibliography, source references, credits for illustrations, and the presence of an index. It is seducing to jump into the ocean and go straight for your destination, but alas there is no plain sailing when studying the history of slavery. One of the assets in Hein’s digital collection are fifty monographs about slavery published by the University of North Carolina Press. Some of these books deal with the Caribbean and Latin-America, and this surely widens the dimensions of the project. The digital collection does allow you to browse all titles, periodicals and scholarly articles, and there are also a bibliographical section and a list of external links, the things users of other HeinOnline collections will expect as normal features. The meta-data of the titles selected for inclusion have been enriched with tagging about their position on slavery, the topics under discussion, the jurisdiction involved, and the document type.

For finding judicial cases the digital collection builds on Helen Tunnicliff Catterall’s Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro (5 vol., Washington, D.C. 1926-1937; reprint Shannon 1968) supplemented by state and federal cases, in particular from the United Stated Supreme Court. The statutes adduced stem not only from American states and the federal government, but also from former colonies. This sounds wonderful indeed, and I understand the lure of wanting to write as Finkelman does in his introduction that this collection “brings together, for the first time, all known legal materials on slavery in the United States and the English-speaking world”.

A complete collection?

How complete is this collection? There seems to be a paradox between the second half of the title of this digital collection, History, Culture & Law, and the claim to contain all legal materials. In my view questioning the completeness should probe in two directions in particular: First, are materials included for the periods that individual states had not yet entered the Union, and secondly, do statutes and cases indeed represent “all legal materials”? The collection contains slavery statutes from fifteen states, and federal cases from 24 states. The periodicals selected for inclusion are all marked as anti-slavery. You can imagine that in periodicals in favour of slavery sometimes more moderate views appeared. In theory a periodical might even have changed camps. No one can complain about the thoughtful inclusion of the British journal The Jurist and of sets of Congressional materials.

The section with scholarly articles and other documents has nine rubrics. For articles the year 1900 has been set as a useful divider. There are sections with book reviews, British slavery, cases and “foreign” – meaning non-British – cases. Judges, laws and statutes appear in separate sections, and there is even a section on “Historical Ancient Slavery” with a nice selection of articles in law journals up to a contribution by Paul J. Du Plessis from 2014. Before you start rejoicing too much it is time to read the notice these articles are only available online to subscribers or subscribing institutions. As a bibliographical asset this section is certainly most valuable. This brings me immediately to the section marked “Bibliography”. The first thing to notice here it is rather short. Relatively much space is given to reports, individual speeches and even cases. Some monographs appear twice for no good reason. You can view the titles only in two ways, alphabetically ordered by title or author.

The digital collection scores better with the fifty monographs published by UNC Press between 1985 and 2015. The list is not long enough to merit reworking in a database. Topics have been added to titles, something to consider at the very least for an update of the bibliographical section. With just ten links the choice of external websites is ridiculously small, even though I was pleased to see a link to a French website, Le droit des traites et des esclavages (CNRS). If this has been included to ensure this HeinOnline collection has a truly global coverage it does not come from its own strengths. I can understand to some extent the fear to point to digital collections from competitors in their branch, but this does not show much confidence. It is surely the global aspect that suffers most here.

However, not everything is as appalling as it might seem in these two last paragraphs. HeinOnline merits consideration on its own basic quality, presenting legal cases in a quick and convenient way. The search possibilities to find cases according to different characteristics are great, and you can download, print, enlarge and use other view facilities at will. The feature to link directly to other cases highlighted in the text of a case is most useful. The stream of relevant cases adduced here and readily available is most impressive and deserves praise.

I enjoyed very much looking at the section with digitized printed materials from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. You do not only find for example a nice choice of pamphlets and even volumes with collections of pamphlets, with special mention for the sixteen volumes of the series Slavery, Race and the American Legal System, 1700-1872: The Pamphlet Literature, edited by Paul Finkelman (Clark, NJ, 2007), and a number of useful bibliographies. The presence of novels, biographies, poems and songs does add a substantial cultural element to the collection. Only some forty items date from before 1800. A quarter of all digitized publications in the set stem from the period 1826-1850, and more than 400 items cover the period 1851-1875. The literature can be browsed in several ways (author, title, date and subject), and you can select literature using four filters (position, document type, jurisdiction, topic) with for each filter an apt drop down list of possible choices.

Alas more has to be said. I can accept as a matter of fact the citation forms used for the federal statutes, but would it not have been sensible to supply more information about the various state statutes used for this project? I am aware of The Indigo Book, the liber pauperum version of the Blue Book, with all niceties to refer correctly to all kind of legal materials. The legal problem of slavery in the United States during the nineteenth century was to a great extent a matter of apparent and real differences between state and federal jurisdiction and legislation, and – almost more importantly – their perception. In the bibliography of this digital collection I missed Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial. Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York 2010). Strangely Lincoln’s speeches are missing, too. Foner is not content with just following Lincoln’s political actions, but does at many point look at legal matters in particular states and on the national level. Foner looks at some of Lincoln’s 34 cases involving black people among the more than 5,000 cases Lincoln handled as a lawyer. I had expected to find in Hein’s open access digital collection the full texts of all cases, but instead you will find only references to them in the digitized literature and the summaries or at its best excerpts given by Catterall. No doubt this information will lead you elsewhere to the complete text of the relevant cases, but the claim “all legal materials” is diminished.

Logo of The Revised Dred Scott Collection

For one of the most influential cases in American legal history it is not only possible but necessary to look at the period between the original case before a circuit court and the epochal case before the Supreme Court ten years later. The new free digital collection does of course contain the Dred Scott case [Dred Scott, Plaintiff in Error, v. John F. A. Sandford 60 U.S. 393 (1856)]. I could not help noticing in the HeinOnline version under discussion how not every reference to cases adduced in this long verdict and the opinions of the judges has been highlighted and linked. In fact I would expect also highlights for and links to for the statutes invoked or mentioned in passing. The Dred Scott case started in 1846, and there is historical documentation for the subsequent phases of the case at the state level. Washington University, St. Louis, MO, has not only created The Revised Dred Scott Case Collection, but also a digital collection for St. Louis Circuit Court Records where you can find the original Dred Scott case and documents concerning seven (!) subsequent cases at St. Louis. In its section for judicial cases HeinOnline does not give a single federal case from Missouri, nor is any link to external resources given, not even at the Library of Congress. In this case Wikipedia does a better job.

Let my plea about this digital collection not only rest on the presence or absence of cases! Among the fugitive slave laws the Fugitive Slave Act of September 18, 1850, often referred to as the Compromise of 1850, stands out. It belongs in every collection dealing with this subject. To my utter disbelief I could not trace here the text of this landmark piece of legislation. In my search for an online version the exact text I seldom saw a correct and complete reference to the original act of Congress, let alone a legal reference. Here again Wikipedia got it right, although it does not include the text of 9 Stat. 462 [Chapter 60, 31. Congress, Session 1]. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 [1 Stat. 302] and even the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 are present; the latter is the very first federal statute of Slavery in America. It might be useful to add a concordance of popular names of laws and their official names.

Cases and statutes in context

I will not completely dismiss the efforts of HeinOnline for this new collection, but I can hardly avoid making some negative statements about it. It seems this firm thought it would suffice to create a historical version of their normal case finding system with the Catterall set as its heart, enhance it with a generous amount of relevant statutes, one thousand interesting (legal) pamphlets, and a thoughtful choice of recent scholarly literature, and launch it perhaps in conjunction with the long-awaited opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Is it only a guess that HeinOnline has been blinded by its own success in making systems adapted to the needs of law schools? This new collection seems to me ideal as a tool on which law students in their first year can show some of their talents in finding legal information. However, even from a point of the development of American legal doctrine Slavery in America does not offer what it promises to do. With sometimes only incomplete cases it is impossible to determine what has been filtered out for any reason. If you believe legal history cannot exist properly without sufficient attention to legal institutions and social history, this digital collection is just a tool to be supplemented by other collections now widely available online, too, and a lot of them in open access.

As for the position of other countries you had better start inside the United States of America, by looking at the Territories, the states in North America that joined the United States between 1776 and 1861 but somehow are here undocumented, i.e. without cases and statutes. You might argue the materials from these territories are not United States legal materials, but they constitute certainly legal materials fit for inclusion. It is startling to see a collection marred by such barriers and omissions. Far more important is the fact that the subject of the place of slavery in law and society surfaced every time a new state wanted to enter the Union. Changes in political geography such as the Mason-Dixie line had immediate consequences regarding slavery, slaves and slave-owners, and former slaves. The thing that you would expect most here are the debates in Congress and in the various state senates concerning aspects of slavery. Of course I am aware this would result in a much larger digital collection, but I think this is necessary for a better understanding of statutes and cases. Hopefully such considerations will be taken into account for the massive Case Law Access Project at Harvard University.

To sum up my first impressions, HeinOnline has created an important but flawed digital collection. The 1,100 digitized publications form a great asset as do the digitized scholarly articles and periodicals. The digitized version of the Catterall set is most helpful. There are some distinct problems with the cases included and the internal references. In my view the choice of state statutes is too limited. The historical bibliography has some merits, but the list with external links is a howler. I pointed also to some real problems in creating a digital collection on this wide-ranging subject. Alas as for now you cannot find here “all legal materials” in open access. However, it does take courage and experience to bring such materials together in an easy navigable way. No doubt some of my criticisms can be easily repaired. Others should be addressed in a thorough explanation of the choices made in creating this digital collection. This will not only help law students and lawyers to benefit from this collection. On purpose I have not looked while writing this post at other reviews of Slavery in America and the World, but in fact I could only find a short announcement at the blog of the Canadian Osgoode Hall Law School Library.

Legal materials in open access

It would be wrong to create a picture of American law online as a treasure completely beyond the reach of normal people, but it certainly takes efforts to find legal materials for the United States online in open access. Creating here a full guide would take up too much space, but I can offer a kind of nutshell guide. To assess the role of commercial databases for American law you might want to look at Legal Databases: A Comparative Analysis (Center for Research Libraries). In particular the Hathi Trust Digital Library contains substantial materials in open access. Harvard Law School has a fine guide to legal materials in open access. The Legal Information Institute (Cornell University Law School) has an overview of state statutes in open access. The Jerome Hall Law Library (Indiana University) has created an online research guide for state legislative history. Sources in open access do not primarily bring you historical materials. Among the exceptions is The Supreme Court Database (Washington University), but this is primarily an indispensable search tool for decisions of the Supreme Court. The website of the American Society for Legal History has a fine links section guiding you to many aspects of US legal history. Anyway it is wise to start your online searches with the Law Library of the Library of Congress. Its web guide for U.S. States and territories is very helpful. is extending its coverage in the near future. Among the digital collections of the LoC you will find much that has relevance for the history of slavery, both in the section on government, law and politics, and in the African-American section. The American Memory portal of the LoC is sometimes more helpful in finding these collections.

By the way, HeinOnline is not the first firm in its branch to place some of its products in open access. LLMC Digital has created free access to The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800, Maeva Marcus et alii (eds.) (8 vol., New York, 1985-2004).

Slavery is a vast subject. On my legal history portal I hesitate to dedicate a complete page to it, but I do give there at least some of the websites which should help your research. The Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal is a good starting point, as are the digital collection of the institute behind it, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition. You will not want to miss The Bibliography of Slavery and World Slaving, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. I urge you to look for relevant online exhibitions in the superb database for online exhibits created by the Smithsonian Institution. Not yet included is the impressive virtual exhibit created by the Inner Temple Library in London, British Black History and the Law, which shows the long impact of slavery and discrimination. Among the best known digital collections concerning American slavery is the Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, Cornell University Library, but there is certainly more. If you want to check the quality of Paul Finkelman’s work in creating a set with a selection of pamphlets concerning slavery and abolition in facsimile you might want to look at some of the digitized pamphlet collections in the United States. For me it is a good thing to see that it matters indeed to look at pamphlets, too, when doing legal history. I feel happy to bring together commented links to relevant digitized pamphlet collections. If I have failed to detect things not clearly immediately transparent in Slavery in America and the World I welcome any constructive guidance to do more justice to it!

A postscript

For those who like myself would like to find the quickest way to US statutes in open access I add a link to the reinforced version of the Library of Congress’ Statutes at Large. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 can be found in the materials for the 31. Congress, but unfortunately the direct link to the relevant chapter (Ch. 60) was broken when I checked it. I am happy to report it has been quickly repaired. By the way, only after publishing this post I noticed it was Open Access Week

In the November 2016 newsletter about the collection HeinOnline points to additions and offers some guidance, in particular for the Slavery Quick Finder tool. In an image with an example the topic happens to be cases and trials based on one of the Fugitive Slave Acts. I tried to find one of these acts with this tool, but alas to no avail. The section with major statutes contains the statute of June 28, 1864 [13 Stat. 200; Chapter 166, 38 Congress, Session 1] which repeals the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, with the year 1850 explicitly mentioned in the title, yet the 1850 document is still absent in this section. The links selection contains now sixteen links including some of the websites I mentioned here. In January 2017 the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was finally included at Slavery Online.


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