Theses Doctoral

Slavery Is Slavery: Early American Mythmaking and the Invention of the Free State

Heniford, Kellen

This dissertation reveals the origins of one of early US history’s most frequently evoked concepts: the northern “free state.” Beginning in the colonial era and ending with the Civil War, “Slavery Is Slavery: Early American Mythmaking and the Invention of the Free State” follows two threads simultaneously: first, the changing meaning of the term “free state,” and, second, the politics of enslavement and freedom in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, the three states whose relationship to slavery seemed most unsure at the Founding. Relying on the methods of conceptual history, this dissertation reveals that for the first several decades of US history, “free state” signified a self-governing, republican entity, and the phrase only came to be associated with slavery after around the year 1820. Even then, the exact geography it represented remained contested, especially in the lower Mid-Atlantic. The confluence of a developing free labor economy and growing northern antislavery sentiment combined to create the conditions for the “free state” to take on a new meaning—the one historians have inherited and continue to employ today.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
McCurry, Stephanie
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 1, 2021