Michaelmas Term, Week 2: Evan Turiano, ‘The Law Must Rule Us’

Next Wednesday, 21st October, at 4.30pm BST, the OxEARS year begins with a discussion of Evan Turiano’s pre-circulated paper ‘”The Law Must Rule Us:” Somerset and the Limits of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law.’ The talk will take place via Zoom (link to follow shortly over the mailing list). If you would like to join the seminar but are not yet on our mailing list, please email grace.mallon@univ.ox.ac.uk and request a copy of the paper.


The legal history of fugitives from slavery in the United States, in one sense, began in 1787. The Northwest Ordinance’s fugitive slave clause provided the foundation of the Constitution’s, which became the basis of the first federal fugitive slave law in 1793. Slaveholders won power in 1787 and 1793. If one begins there, the proslavery outcomes are whole story. A longer view, however, reveals that 1787 and 1793 were already the products of legal and political conflicts over the rights of Black people and the future of slavery.

This chapter examines the origins of the political conflict over the legal rights of accused fugitive slaves. The fight over fugitives from slavery in the Revolutionary era was defined by the collision of two legal trends: (1) the proslavery effort to sequester Black people as far as possible from legal rights in order to secure a coherent property right over them, and (2) the struggle by Black people and their allies to secure freedom and rights through those same legal channels. An examination of the eighteenth-century origins of the struggle over the legal rights of accused fugitives will clarify how the struggle that enslaved people forced into formal politics by escaping bondage came to play a central role in the coming of the Civil War.


Evan Turiano is a PhD Candidate in History at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow at LaGuardia Community College. His dissertation, “Running toward Abolition: Fugitive Slaves, Legal Rights, and the Coming of the Civil War,” examines the political conflict over the legal rights of accused fugitive slaves from before the Revolution through the onset of the Civil War. He’s received fellowships from the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, the Nau Center for Civil War History, and the Colonial Dames of America.

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