“Negro Thieves” and Abolitionists: Slave Stealing in Kentucky in the Civil War Era Laura R. Sandy The practice of slave stealing spans the history of American slavery. From the moment that Africans were first enslaved in the American colonies, and became a form of property, slave stealing began. The cases themselves, the way in which the culprits were dealt with, and the public and political responses are extremely revealing. The theft of human property was clearly a complicated crime and those involved, whether deliberately or inadvertently, came from a variety of backgrounds. Thus, investigating the phenomenon of slave stealing reveals the fundamental anxieties and volatility that characterized antebellum society, demonstrating that the everyday lives of southerners, free and unfree, were in large measure shaped by behaviors that transgressed custom and law and challenged many of the assumptions upon which racialized slavery as a system rested. Furthermore, incidents of slave stealing, of one form or another, occurred on such a scale that any full consideration of the lives of the enslaved ought to consider the (far from rare) experience of being stolen. The instances of theft involved other southerners, too, who have not always received the attention in the historiography that they merit: poor whites, small-scale slave owners, and free people of color. Uncovering these histories and integrating them into the broader narrative provides fascinating new insights into the ‘peculiar institution’ and its evolution over time and space. From a historiographical perspective, attention to this topic is long overdue. Slave stealing has not yet attracted serious scholarly attention. Although it was, as John Hope Franklin acknowledges, a common occurrence, the phenomenon draws only passing references in one or two studies, offering no analytical framework by which to understand the theft of human property.1 Indeed, many key texts have failed to recognize the practice at all. Studies by Walter Johnson and Michael Tadman, for example, have illuminated much about the story of the legal slave trade and its intricacies, but the illicit, indeed, by its very nature covert, story of the illegal trafficking of slaves (whether for profit or other reasons) remains very much in the shadows of the historiography.2 Besides being very much part of the lived experience of enslavement for many enslaved men and women, the stealing of this ‘troublesome’ human property highlighted the fundamental contradiction inherent in southern law, between recognition of the humanity of the enslaved and their status as chattel. Historians such as Eugene Genovese and James Oakes have pointed to the centrality of that conflict to destabilizing ‘the peculiar institution,’ in particular in the antebellum era and the decades leading up to the Civil War. 3 The struggle to define clearly the perimeters of the theft of a slave, for example in the frequent notion that the stolen slave was “enticed,” rather than an agent in her or his own theft, is a stark indicator of the South’s inability to create a consistent legal framework. Indeed, a coherent and forceful framework, that both secured slavery as a system in which the slave was mere chattel, while recognizing, albeit reluctantly, that slaves were in fact also humans capable of autonomy, was essential in southern courtrooms in order to defend individual property rights and secure the institution itself. However, slave stealers did not merely highlight the incongruities of the laws that dealt with human property, they also drew attention to the paradoxes that persistently plagued southern society and fueled growing social discord in the antebellum and Civil War eras. Although the motivations and methods of slave stealers differed considerably, the impact of their illegal activities and transgressions damaged the pillars on which southern society rested. From the opportunistic “negroe thieves,” who hoped to profit from the theft and re-sale, to the humanitarian abolitionists, attempting to ‘steal’ freedom for the enslaved, to those who simply sought to rescue an ill-treated individual or free a family member, friend or lover, all those who attempted to steal human property posed a threat to the southern way of life. Whether acting alone or working in partnerships, or gangs or as part of the national anti-slavery movement, slave stealing men and women, black and white, free and unfree, challenged planter hegemo

docDoc The Civil War and Slavery Reconsidered- Chapter 4- Laura Sandy

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