Hendrik Hartog: What’s in a Word

The Trouble with Minna, by Hendrik HartogToday we welcome a guest post from Hendrik Hartog, author of The Trouble with Minna:  A Case of Slavery and Emancipation in the Antebellum North, just published by UNC Press.

In this intriguing book, Hendrik Hartog uses a forgotten 1840 case to explore the regime of gradual emancipation that took place in New Jersey over the first half of the nineteenth century. In Minna’s case, white people fought over who would pay for the costs of caring for a dependent, apparently enslaved, woman. Hartog marks how the peculiar language mobilized by the debate—about care as a “mere voluntary courtesy”—became routine in a wide range of subsequent cases about “good Samaritans.” Using Minna’s case as a springboard, Hartog explores the statutes, situations, and conflicts that helped produce a regime where slavery was usually but not always legal and where a supposedly enslaved person may or may not have been legally free.

The Trouble with Minna is available now in both print and ebook editions.

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What’s in a Word

In The Trouble with Minna I work to describe a legal regime — New Jersey’s regime of gradual emancipation — that lived on for the better part of two generations, close to 70 years. During those years slavery and freedom jostled together. Longstanding “vested” recognitions of the legitimacy of property in persons confronted strongly held, increasingly ubiquitous, understandings of the moral unjustifiability of owning people. In the stories I have reconstructed, both sides are there, all the time. And together they helped constitute New Jersey’s regime of gradual emancipation.

I have been asked how to characterize this regime. I fear I have not yet found the right word. “Liminal” is too fuzzy and too academic. “Transitional” is exactly wrong, in its suggestion of an inevitable movement from one state of being — one side — to another. As are “evolving” and “evolutionary.” Those who lived in New Jersey during the first half of the nineteenth century might or might not have believed that the world they lived in was naturally transitioning towards something different, say a world without slavery. (No more than free trade and borderless cosmopolitanism constitute the regime to which we are naturally evolving or transitioning to today.)

The people I study lived with what we might conclude were contradictions. Slaveholders routinely placed term limits — determinative promises of freedom — into transactions involving their property, their slaves. Enslaved people — or apparently still enslaved people — abided by and relied on such contractual terms. It is not clear to me that they understood their world as rife with contradictions.

They understood that their rules and practices and customs were particular to them. They understood that their borders did not contain the complexities of their lives. They understood that things were different elsewhere, perhaps only a ferry ride away. They understood that people a ferry ride away might not want to live under their rules and practices and customs. And yet they would not have experienced their rules and practices and customs as chaotic or discordant. It was just the regime that they lived within.

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Hendrik Hartog is Class of 1921 Bicentennial Chair in the History of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University.