What Is SLP?

SLP (Slavery, Law, and Power) is a project dedicated to bringing the many disparate sources that help to explain the long history of slavery and its connection to struggles over power in early America, particularly in the colonies that would become the United States. Going back to the early English Empire, this project traces the rise of the slave trade along with the parallel struggles between monarchical power and early democratic institutions and ideals. We are creating a curated set of documents that help researchers and students to understand the background to the fierce struggles over both slavery and power during the American Revolution, when questions of monarchical power, consent to government, and hereditary slavery were all fiercely debated. After America separated from Britain, the United States was still deeply influenced by this long history, especially up to the Civil War. The colonial legacies of these debates continued to affect the course of politics, law, and justice in American society as a whole.

America’s current struggles over authoritarianism and democracy, over racism and social justice, have long roots. Whereas most historians began their explorations of those roots with the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, or in some cases with individual colonies’ discrete history with regard to slavery or democracy, this project aims to help scholars access that longer history within the context of the larger power structure of the British Empire. The Slavery, Law, and Power (SLP) project focuses on primary sources that expose the debates and struggles over slavery and power in the early modern British Empire and in the new United States. At present many of these sources are buried in archives–in difficult old handwriting–and scattered across institutions, many geographically remote from each other. When some of these materials are accessible via scanned databases, they are often behind a cascade of different paywalls.  It is thus difficult for scholars to see how the structures of power connected, or to see how those imperial structures in many ways promoted not only authoritarian governance, but also slavery.

  Under royal patronage, slavery, and the slave trade (and Britain’s role in it) expanded exponentially across its empire on the African coast and in the Americas (even when “free trade” in slaves was permitted in slaves after 1698, that trade was protected at great expense by the Royal Navy). At the same time this period marked the birth of what we now call democratic principles and legal practices. How these connect is a crucial and difficult question that for too long we have been trying to answer without sufficient access to the evidence that helps us to see how structures of governance interacted with the polices, that helps us understand individual actions without a broader context.

Piecing together these struggles over policies and practices requires that many of the original sources be put in conversation.  But these sources are so difficult to access that most scholars have consulted only fragments of this larger record. SLP seeks to enable historians, political theorists and scientists, and scholars in African American, American, and British studies to access materials that reveal how power and law, censorship and propaganda, political theory and religion, all influenced and connected to the development of racial chattel slavery–and its eventual demise–in the British Empire and the United States.

Ethics Statement

The Slavery, Law, and Power (SLP) project focuses on how policies made justice and injustice during a critical period of the formation of the United States, early Modern Britain, as well as the Caribbean. We also attend to developments in African kingdoms, Latin American colonies, and other empires, particularly as they influenced the development of slavery in the British Empire and the early United States. It seeks to increase access to historical sources that focus on debates and struggles over racial slavery and power and to show how those debates impacted policies and lives. Most of this site’s documents concern the early modern English/British Empire and the new United States during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and derive from manuscripts that illuminate such policies and their impacts. How did the policies that resulted impact enslaved and free peoples, especially African and indigenous peoples? How did they resist? How do such policies connect to larger power structures, to efforts to establish human rights and government based on the consent of the governed that emerged during the same period? How were lands legally granted, and people legally enslaved? What was the logic behind such policies, and who challenged them? Who was co-opted and compromised? Who was silenced, legally and in terms of the archives, and how was such silencing accomplished?

Each document is selected to help illuminate either broader struggles over power and authority or debates specific to slavery and the slave trade, and to explore the impacts of such debates. At the same time, SLP explores debates over democracy and human rights which emerged during the same centuries, peeling apart the complexities of legal status and evolving ideas about just power and consent and their impacts in terms of policies. It treats policies surrounding slavery as part of, not separate from, broader legal principles and policies that began to differentiate human rights and obligations, and more modern structures of power. It focuses on questions of difference and exclusion, of the rights of citizens and subjects versus those of “aliens” and the dispossessed. How were such issues contested, on what grounds, in what forums, and how did those struggles change over time? By understanding such policies in the past, we can also help understand their tendrils in the present and help inform modern debates over policies and their impacts, over justice and injustice.

We recognize that in creating a curated set of documents that contextualize this history, many of our sources, necessarily, include disturbing, violent, and/or racist content. Of course, it would be possible to ignore such materials, as many have done in the past. However, we believe such focus is necessary to expose the mechanisms that enabled, encouraged, and legalized enslavement, oppression, and projects of white supremacy and oligarchy were not simple, but complex, and changing over time and by colony, by government, and by location. Through them, we can help to identify why and where racial slavery grew most quickly, why and where racial slavery failed or was abolished. Who promoted it and why, and who challenged parts of it but not others. Who thought they had made compromises, but why such compromises could fail. To this end, we provide critical contextualizing introductions that provide the background necessary for understanding each document’s importance. In doing so we also encourage readers to identify both the impact on the enslaved and their efforts to resist such oppression as political actors themselves, at the same time as we acknowledge issues and oppressions that are often beyond their direct control.

SLP examines the histories of racial enslavement, racial violence, and white supremacy. Some of the works on this website contain offensive and racist language, descriptions of punishment and enslavement that may be difficult to read, and other types of distressing content. We understand that these materials can be upsetting or triggering for our users. As such, we endeavor to alert users to potentially harmful content and will direct them to this ethics statement for more information on our policy.

We also acknowledge that the process of identifying harmful or difficult content is ongoing. SLP welcomes feedback from our users. If you encounter harmful or distressing content on our website that requires additional warnings, please let us know by emailing us at slaverylawpower@gmail.com.

Our Ethics Statement is drawn from our project ethos, as well as similar practices and statements from other digital humanities projects, archives, and libraries. For more information on reparative description and harmful content warning and policy, please refer to National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Content, University of Virginia Library’s Statement on Harmful Language in Cataloging and Archival Description, Tufts Archival Research Center’s Content Warnings Protocol for Digital Archival Materials.