In this episode of the American Society for Legal History’s podcast Talking Legal History
Siobhan talks with Hendrik Hartog
about his book The Trouble with Minna: A Case of Slavery and Emancipation in the Antebellum North
(UNC Press, 2018). The Trouble with Minna
is also used as a vessel to explore some of the topics discussed in Law and Social Inquiry
's May 2019 “Review Symposium: Retrospective on the Work of Hendrik Hartog.” Hartog is the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty, Emeritus at Princeton University. This episode is the first in a series featuring legal history works from UNC Press. Support for the production of this series was provided by the Versatile Humanists at Duke program.
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.
In exploring this liminal and unsettled legal space, Hartog sheds light on the relationships between moral and legal reasoning and a legal landscape that challenges simplistic notions of what it meant to live in freedom. What emerges is a provocative portrait of a distant legal order that, in its contradictions and moral dilemmas, bears an ironic resemblance to our own legal world.
Siobhan M. M. Barco, J.D. explores U.S. legal history at Duke University.