Kozel on Weierman, 'The Case of the Slave-Child, Med: Free Soil in Antislavery Boston'

Author: 
Karen Woods Weierman
Reviewer: 
Sue Kozel

Karen Woods Weierman. The Case of the Slave-Child, Med: Free Soil in Antislavery Boston. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019. xv + 164 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-476-2

Reviewed by Sue Kozel (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Nationalism (January, 2021) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55654

The Case of the Slave-Child, Med, Free Soil in Antislavery Boston by Karen Woods Weierman examines the rise and fall of a high-profile child, a New Orleans slave child named Med, who was brought to Massachusetts to accompany her slave owner. The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) joined with other allies in support of a freedom suit to award Med her freedom in a free soil state. The book adds much to an important discussion of children’s rights, especially in the context of enslavement, and presents an overview of key freedom suits inside and outside the Boston area prior to Med’s case and up to the Dred Scott decision. After all the research, one story remains central to the book: an enslaved child who achieved notoriety due to abolitionist propaganda and a successful legal suit died forgotten in a sanitarium without a guardian, without a gravestone, and her name “erased” two years after her celebrity was gained (p. 80).

When Samuel Slater, who was born in Massachusetts and in 1836 living in Louisiana, allowed his wife to bring Med to free soil Massachusetts, he did not envision being part of a precedent-setting lawsuit that would result in Med’s freedom. His wife became ill while visiting her father, Thomas Aves, and she asked Aves to care for Med temporarily. Slavery in Massachusetts was abolished in 1783 and the attorney representing Med's return to her owner, Benjamin Robbins Curtis, held that temporarily caring for a slave should not result in the freedom of that slave in a state without slavery. Curtis argued that Med should be transported back to Louisiana because Med was a slave in Louisiana.[1] Through Woods Weierman’s careful excavation of the facts, we see Curtis, a future dissenting justice on the Dred Scott case, as a lawyer defending the holding of Med as a slave. Furthermore, Curtis's father lived in Massachusetts and participated in the slave trade for South Carolina. In the text of his dissent to the majority court opinion for the Dred Scott case, Curtis referred to Med’s case three times, a point that might have been discussed in the Woods Weierman text.[2] History is not always clean and simple, as Woods Weierman’s book illustrates.

Woods Weierman notes that Slater believed that a free child of an enslaved mother “should remain under the control of the mother’s enslaver” (p. 4). Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, writing on behalf of the BFASS, urged Mrs. Slater to free Med’s mother in Louisiana so that she could be reunited with Med. That letter called for Mrs. Slater to embrace the “Golden Rule” and follow Christian values, and reject the idea of a “kind” slave owner (p. 60). While no response from Mrs. Slater has been found, the end result was that Med’s mother remained enslaved.

Woods Weierman presents the resulting tragedy of Med’s story after the court ruled for her freedom. Three major developments occur: she was institutionalized after her freedom was awarded by the court, her notoriety declined to the point of being erased, and this “free” child was abandoned by the white women who worked to promote her freedom with notable propaganda campaigns. As Woods Weierman writes, Med was “erased” from history (p. 90), no longer mentioned in writing whereas just two years earlier her example had been celebrated. Med was renamed “Maria Sommersett” (p. 76) in honor of two BFASS women and the 1772 English Somerset case that held that enslaved people had certain rights to liberty. Slaves adapted the Somerset case to Massachusetts, where slavery had been abolished in 1783. Med died tragically two years after being granted freedom, an ill, invisible, and forgotten child, without a marked gravestone. Ironically, a colleague of William Lloyd Garrison, printer Isaac Knapp, attempted to apply for custody of Med rather than see her in an asylum, but Woods Weierman writes that no explanation exists for why custody was denied (p. 56). It was Knapp who published the entire Commonwealth v. Aves court proceedings in 1836. According to the proceedings, the court intended to find a guardian, but apparently none was found.[3] Because Woods Weierman found very little evidence concerning Med’s life, she attempts to extrapolate from the childhood experiences of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, showing examples of how Douglass and Jacobs confronted their slave status.

What went wrong in Med’s case, and why did the same abolitionists who heralded her as the new “Somerset” abandon her? The book does not provide a definitive answer, although many clues are unveiled. A Med silk work bag was sold by the BFASS to raise public awareness about Med’s freedom, but her name was not mentioned. Woods Weierman attempts to document the conflicted nature of the BFASS support for Med, emphasizing selling bags to promote Med’s case while not mentioning her name or including her image. Woods Weierman categorizes this invisibility as “an erasure of her personhood and her reality as a dependent child” (p. 79). The Samaritan Asylum for Indigent Children, described as a relatively new institution for “colored” children, included the involvement of BFASS members and officers. However, Woods Weierman does not go into detail about the entangled relationships that existed. What was the nature of BFASS’s close relationship to the asylum? Why was it chosen for Med? While it is true that Ellis Gray Loring and his wife, Louisa,[4] intervened by sending her a doctor while Med was ill in the summer of 1838 and communicated Med’s illness to active BFASS member Catherine Sullivan, there appears to have been no other intervention. Woods Weierman neglects to mention that Louisa Loring was a member of the BFASS and married to the lawyer defending Med. That information is helpful because it provides context for the role of the BFASS in Med’s life and death. Med was one of thirteen children who died to that point in the Samaritan Asylum.

Woods Weierman resurrects the full story of Med’s struggle for human rights, interweaving histories of the BFASS, the impact of African American Poet Phillis Wheatley’s writing on abolitionist causes, and the earlier history of the 1772 Somerset slave freedom case with the later freedom suit by Dred Scott and his family. The author notes that Dred Scott’s case was on behalf of himself, his wife, and two young children, and she illustrates that with Scott and his family, slaves were denied standing to pursue any constitutional argument before the Supreme Court about being free on free soil because they were not citizens of the United States. Woods Weierman’s example show us the national trend toward favoring enslavement and the rights of slave owners but does not clarify the importance of the trend. This oversight does not dilute the value of the book but could be addressed in a new edition, which would enable Med’s compelling story to have an even broader audience among students of law, abolitionism, antebellum slavery, and nationalism.

The closing paragraph of the book presents Woods Weierman’s conclusion on how to interpret what I will call the “celebrity” status of Med and her subsequent fall from visibility, a point the author made earlier (p. 57). Woods Weierman argues, “Remembering Med forces a kind of moral accounting, one that we have avoided through the mythologies of Boston as the birthplace of abolition and a cradle of liberty. Remembering Med makes it harder to cast abolitionism as a ‘satisfying morality tale.’ Her life and death remind us that human rights work cannot lose sight of individual humanity” (p. 125).

In some ways, the title and description of the book are misleading, and the work might be better described as evaluating the significance of Med’s case and life in the context of broader case law and national Supreme Court cases. Woods Weierman’s book, after all, presents a welcome legal analysis, drawing on scholarship by experts on court law, such as Paul Finkleman’s analysis of the Dred Scott case. Here Woods Weierman quotes Finkleman on Lincoln and the Dred Scott case: “'Lincoln, and other northerners, saw the Dred Scott decision as a first step toward the nationalization of slavery'” (p. 92). Woods Weierman misses an opportunity to discuss more clearly the growing movement of the “slave power” as an instrument of nationalization. With her discussions of the Boston protests against the Dred Scott decision through the retelling of the Boston Massacre and the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks she sets up the racial consciousness of African Americans and their struggles, with or without allies, for freedom. It is in chapter 4, “Maria Somerset, the American Steward, and Dred Scott,” that Woods Weierman offers some of her most meaningful findings. She argues that Med and Scott have similarities that cut across gender, age, and historical period: the same judge was involved in both cases, and Massachusetts was connected to both, with Scott’s subsequent ownership by a Massachusetts Republican congressman who later freed him through manumission. Both Med and Dred Scott died within two years after winning their freedom.

One of the interesting approaches by Woods Weierman incorporates Ruby Bridges and her 1960 civil rights story about integrating schools in New Orleans, also home to Med. But the incorporation of a lot of detail on cases like this undermines the focus on Med. The discussion becomes a bit muddled with so much information that is compelling yet underdeveloped.

Woods Weierman acknowledges several key authors in the interdisciplinary studies of childhood that influenced her work; nearly all the authors are cited in the October 2020 American Historical Review special exchange feature “Rethinking the History of Childhood.” In a future sharing of resources, I expect the work of Woods Weierman to be listed.

The book could have benefited from a chronological time line listing all the cases inside and outside of Massachusetts, and another descriptive insert with the relationships of the important Massachusetts attorneys, judges, and BFASS members involved in the Med case to better present a thoughtful contextual framework for Med’s short life. 

Overall, Med’s important story adds to the history of childhood and the documentation of enslavement. The unraveling of details creates a better understanding of the contradictory nature of abolitionist advocacy in Boston, and therefore the study emerges as an important cornerstone for further investigations in abolitionist history.

Notes

[1]. Earl M. Maltz, “The Last Angry Man: Benjamin Robbins Curtis and the Dred Scott Case,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 82 (December 2006): 265-76.

[2]. Justice Benjamin Robbins Curtis, “Justice Curtis Dissents,” American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and beyond, accessed December 30, 2020,  http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1826-1850/dred-scott-case/justice-curtis-dissenting.php.

[3]. Thomas Aves, defendant, Case of the slave-child Med: report of the arguments of counsel, and of the opinion of the court, in the case of Commonwealth vs. Aves; tried and determined in the Supreme judicial court of Massachusetts (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1836), 40, accessed December 30, 2020, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=dul1.ark:/13960/t20d2qk7x&view=1up&seq=7.

[4]. As quoted in Debra Gold Hansen, “The Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Limits of Gender Politics” in Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women’s Political Culture in Antebellum America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 46-47, cited in Handout IB, “The Growing Role of Women,” accessed January 2, 2021, https://www.masshist.org/2012/juniper/assets/cth-lesson-plans/BMurphy/bm_handout_1b.pdf.

Citation: Sue Kozel. Review of Weierman, Karen Woods, The Case of the Slave-Child, Med: Free Soil in Antislavery Boston. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55654

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