Jason Finkelstein, 2009
September 24, 2008
Source Report: Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro
1. What is it?
Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro is a five volume, 3000 page anthology of court transcripts from the local, state, and federal levels (English, Canadian, and Jamaican cases are included as well). The collection includes cases beginning with the founding of the state and ending in 1875. Though there are an extensive number of cases outlined in the collection, the author of the preface notes that Catterall, "omitted repetit[ious]...cases." For this reason, the user of this source should be aware that it does not include every case which pertains to American slavery (indeed, the case I am interested was omitted). Once the case has been found, the researcher can expect to find a summary of the case (lifted directly from the court transcripts) and an outline of the judge's ruling. Though some cases are outlined in a great detail (several pages at most), the majority of cases include only a few sentences summarizing the case and a single sentence explaining the judge's ruling. It is important for the researcher to keep in mind that this source will likely not provide a great deal of depth nor will it include any sort of analysis on the part of the author. It is only meant to provide the most relevant bits of text from the court transcript.
2. When was it made? By whom? Why?
Each volume of the anthology was published separately from 1926 to 1937 by The Carnegie Institution of Washington. The editor, Helen Tunnicliff Catterall actually died before she was able to complete the fifth volume, which was finished by James J. Hayden. In the preface, the J. Franklin James points out that although there are a wide variety of sources available on slavery, very few address "American slavery as an actual institution." Catterall's purpose was to provide the reader with first hand accounts of slavery as it existed throughout the course of American history through the lens of court records.
3. Who appears in it?
The question of who appears in this collection is difficult to answer. I am certain, considering the sheer magnitude of the project, that it includes names and cases that have otherwise faded from the historical record. I am inclined to believe that the cases that appear in this anthology are not necessarily the most famous or important ones, but the ones for which court transcripts were available.
4. How is it organized?
The anthology is broken down into five bound volumes that are organized geographically:
Volume I: Cases from the Courts of England, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky
Volume II: Cases from the Courts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee
Volume III: Cases from the Courts of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana
Volume IV: Cases from the Courts of New England, the Middle States, and the District of Columbia
Volume V: Cases from the Courts of States north of the Ohio and west of the Mississippi Rivers, Canada, and Jamaica
Within each volume, the cases are separated by state and organized chronologically within that state. Once the researcher becomes familiar with which state is in which volume, the source becomes quite easy to use.
5. How do you use it?
The most convenient way to go about using the source is to determine which volume the researcher needs. Once the correct volume has been obtained, the researcher should turn to the index located at the end of each volume to find the page number that their case is located on. The index includes both the names of cases (plaintiff listed first) and the names of the people involved in those cases (last name listed first). There is no supplementary material to speak of; everything the researcher needs is located directly in the volumes themselves.
6. How do you get access to it? Where is it located?
The only thing required to gain access to the anthology is a library card. All five volumes are located on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library under the call number E 441 C35 v.1-5. They are not reference or special collections items and they can be checked out of the library. There are no unusual rules or strictures and the researcher can treat this collection as they would any other book in the library.
7. What kinds of questions can it answer?
If the researcher is looking for an in-depth analysis of certain judicial cases pertaining to slavery, then this is not the source for you. It includes very brief summaries comprised of primary source materials (taken directly from court transcripts) and the judge's ruling on the case. It could be very useful to the student that is trying to gain a baseline understanding of a particular case, though it will likely not have enough information (or perspective) to provide the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the cases historical significance. It would also be of value to the researcher who is interested in getting their hands on some primary source material from a particular case but cannot find the court transcripts. The questions that it can answer are the simple ones, but the simple questions are often times the most fundamental ones.