In Freedom's Conditions in the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands in the Age of Emancipation, American and Canadian legal historians explore the operation of race in the borderlands in the mid-nineteenth century. The contributors – Tony Freyer, Lyndsay Campbell, Aviam Soifer, Gautham Rao, John Wertheimer, Stephen Middleton, and Bradley Miller – examine the shadows that legal regimes cast upon each other, as people of African descent, and others, made decisions to move from one place to another in search of better, freer conditions under which to live, work, and raise their families. Legal institutions struggled with commitments to preserving states' rights to govern their own people, to popular sovereignty, to freedom of contract, to liberal ideals of equality and comity, and of course to white supremacy. Tensions ran high among different levels of government - federal-state-local in the United States and imperial-colonial-local in British North America. On the ground, practices of governance, such as policing and slave-catching, were unevenly professionalized: on both sides of the international border, low-level officials without much legal training and vested with considerable discretion were essential state actors.
This collection is aimed at both American and Canadian readers interested in the histories of race, inter-state relations, and the development of legal institutions. The introduction and conclusion, by Freyer and Campbell, frame the essays and identify unifying themes and overlapping conclusions. As a whole, the essays in this collection make clear the hope that Canadian legal institutions offered to African Americans: formal equality, though in practice discrimination took place in the implementation of law, through racializing habits that affected exercises of discretion by various state officials. In the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, combined with the influx of Irish immigrants in the late 1840s, provoked sharp, tense conflicts over the racialized governance of human mobility in the northern states, conflicts that, ironically, carved out a space for greater rights and autonomy for African Americans even as the fault lines in American federalism deepened. These essays also cast light on the fundamental instabilities in a legal system that accommodated slavery and explicitly entrenched white supremacy.
“The strengths of this book are numerous. ...[T]he authors engage legal and constitutional questions from both institutional and human frameworks. Readers will learn a great deal about the structure of both Canadian and American legal systems and the people who participated in them.” — The Journal of Southern History