Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

From “Eureka!” to footnotes

· August 29th, 2018 · No Comments

This post comes to us from Sarah L. H. Gronningsater (University of Pennsylvania), author of “‘Expressly Recognized by Our Election Laws’: Certificates of Freedom and the Multiple Fates of Black Citizenship in the Early Republic” in the July 2018 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. She responds to the question How does your essay in the WMQ relate to your larger project and/or more general scholarly interests?

by Sarah L. H. Gronningsater

In 2011—two hundred years after New York passed “An Act to prevent frauds and perjuries at elections, and to prevent slaves from voting”—I was in the early stages of researching my dissertation. I was looking for evidence about the legal, social, and political experiences of black children born during New York’s gradual emancipation (c. 1790s-1830s). I was fascinated by this generation because they lived through two major emancipations: one very long one that occurred in their home state during their childhoods, and one relatively fast one that occurred during the Civil War several decades later. I hoped to discover how their early encounters with abolition shaped their adult approaches to the problems of slavery and freedom nationwide. While researching this generation, I stumbled across the documents—the “certificates of freedom”—that form the archival backbone of my William and Mary Quarterly article.

The specific source that launched my long journey into the pages of the WMQ was the Albany County Clerk’s Register of Manumitted Slaves. In 1799, New York passed a law that freed future children born to slave mothers while also requiring these children to work as servants until adulthood. To regulate this process, the legislature required masters to report freeborn children’s names and birthdays to local clerks.

As I flipped through the Albany Register, I found a rich assortment of records pertaining to slavery and its slow undoing. There were straightforward manumissions, conditional manumissions, testamentary manumissions, indenture contracts, registrations of free black children’s births, “abandonments” of such children to the Overseers of the Poor, and records of free black people purchasing their enslaved relatives. I had seen these sorts of things before.

It was around page 92 that I got a bit confused. In the span of a week, in April 1811, fourteen black men, many of who seemed to be former slaves, were granted documents that affirmed their freedom, but did not contain the typical language of a manumission. I was also flummoxed by the fact that these documents were filed one after the other so quickly, in a matter of days.

I vaguely recall the “Eureka!” moment. I kept a stack of state laws in a pile by my desk. I dug through to the April 9, 1811 election law, which outlined the process by which black men were required to obtain “certificates of freedom” before being permitted to vote. The slew of documents copied down by the Albany County clerk in the last week of April 1811—just as the annual election was slated to begin—were certificates of freedom. These were among the nation’s very first “voter ID” documents. (Eventually, most of New York’s black men were disfranchised by the state’s 1821 constitution.)

The men who acquired the certificates were, in essence, the fathers of the children whose stories animated my dissertation (and now book) project. It certainly mattered, I thought, that the younger generation saw their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and mentors voting. Watching their elders go to polls would have provided a sense of what equal citizenship entailed, what “freedom” had to include in order to be meaningful in practice. As I found more certificates throughout the state, I began to think these voters deserved a starring role in their own publication.

Before I wrote even a word of the article, I knew I wanted to give the WMQ a shot. I knew Josh Piker would likely ask half a dozen readers to review the piece, and for a variety of reasons, I was eager for that depth and breadth of criticism and advice. (I was not disappointed; my six reviewers were outstandingly helpful and perceptive.) I also knew that the WMQ was generous with word count in the footnotes, and since the article is so primary-source driven, I was keen to have space to discuss the archives and the documents in detail, and to highlight the backgrounds of some of the otherwise obscure black men who voted in the early republic. That may sound silly—“the WMQ is so great about footnotes!”—but it mattered; that extra space allowed me to introduce new names, sources, and archival sites to readers interested in early republican politics and the history of slavery, abolition, democracy, and citizenship.

Throughout the WMQ revision process, I persisted in my somewhat maniacal search for certificates. More than once, I sent Josh a caffeinated email (I prefer to do archival work in the mornings), filled with exclamation points, explaining where I had found new certificates and why this find was especially thrilling. In retrospect—now having an even deeper understanding of the incredible amount of time and effort that Josh and his editorial staff put in to producing every issue of the WMQ—I feel a bit sheepish about these sporadic, ebullient emails. But it is Josh’s gift that he can maintain so many conversations, about so many different pieces of work, which cover such a vast array of early American subjects, all at once. The process of publishing a piece in the WMQ is intense, but I also found it to be one filled with many moments of pleasure at being able to nerd out about sources and ideas.

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