Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America

Michael A. Schoeppner. Forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in March 2019. Available to pre-order now via Cambridge University Press and Amazon.

Between 1822 and 1857, eight Southern states barred the ingress of all free black maritime workers. According to lawmakers, they carried a ‘moral contagion’ of abolitionism and black autonomy that could be transmitted to local slaves. Those seamen who arrived in Southern ports in violation of the laws faced incarceration, corporal punishment, an incipient form of convict leasing, and even punitive enslavement. The sailors, their captains, abolitionists, and British diplomatic agents protested this treatment. They wrote letters, published tracts, cajoled elected officials, pleaded with Southern officials, and litigated in state and federal courts. By deploying a progressive and sweeping notion of national citizenship – one that guaranteed a number of rights against state regulation – they exposed the ambiguity and potential power of national citizenship as a legal category. Ultimately, the Fourteenth Amendment recognized the robust understanding of citizenship championed by antebellum free people of color, by people afflicted with ‘moral contagion.’

About the Author:

After taking his Ph.D. in American legal history from the University of Florida in December 2010, Michael Schoeppner accepted a two-year fellowship with the American Council of Learned Societies. In 2013, he joined the faculty at the University of Maine-Farmington, where he currently serves as an assistant professor of history. His research explores the relationship between race, migration, and American constitutional development, especially in the nineteenth century. He has published work in the Journal of American History and Law & History Review. The College of Charleston’s CLAW  (Carolina Lowlands and Atlantic World) program awarded Moral Contagion its 2017 Hines Prize for the best book manuscript by a first-time author.

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