Slavery, Law, & Power

Exploring Debates Over Justice and Democracy in the British Empire and Early America


Explore original sources, both published and in manuscript.


Discover debates over slavery, empire, and power in the Anglo-American world.


Learn how and why (and whether) debates and struggles over human rights and equality reshaped existing political and social structures.

“Whilst those abroade are thus acting and carrying on their Butcheries upon the Souls of men there, how quietly and unconcernedly in the mean time do we sit down here, and take our ease, not once in our thoughts reflecting upon this Calamity.”

Morgan Godwyn, 1685

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 (SLAP) 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. SLAP 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.