When litigants entered Southern courtrooms after the end of the Civil War, they encountered a tangled morass of unexpected legal questions related to the end of slavery. Though the need to face such problems was ubiquitous across the former slaveholding republic, each state contended with such matters uniquely, producing a series of different solutions to the same fundamental problems. Principal among them: Why were there so many legacies of slavery contested in court? How should the law treat slavery and former slaves after the supposed end of the peculiar institution? In what ways did litigants themselves help to shape the meaning of freedom? How complete was the abolition of slavery if the institution itself remained open to ongoing litigation?
State courts and individual petitioners were forced to confront the altered legal terrain of the post-Civil War South and negotiate the precise meanings of the Thirteenth Amendment, the end of slavery, the transformation of the former slave states, and ultimately, the reunification of the United States. Evaluating the many responses to these issues exposes legal Reconstruction’s many possibilities; some would become the road not taken, while others set the standard for managing slavery’s remaining legal quandaries. In some courtrooms, jurists were committed to a total eradication of slavery and the laws that had once supported it, revealing Reconstruction’s fleeting potential to secure true freedom for four million former slaves. The outcomes of other cases reveal judges clinging to assumptions about race, law, and Southern society that reflected the antebellum past. As this dissertation shows, the more conservative route ultimately became the prevailing legal paradigm, but it took nearly ten years to arrive at this conclusion, challenging the notion that there was ever a fixed meaning or moment of emancipation.