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The Freedom of a Broken Law: Antinomianism and Abolition in American Literature

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“The Freedom of a Broken Law: Antinomianism and Abolition in American Literature,” argues for antinomianism, a belief that God’s free grace makes adherence to civil law inessential, as a new way of understanding Black and Indigenous resistance to law in American literature. I re-configure the concept of antinomianism as a new framework for understanding the relationship between law, religion, and the practice of freedom in American literature primarily from 1630 through the 1860s.

As scholars such as Saidiya Hartman and Colin Dayan have argued, African Americans and Indigenous Americans have, since as early as the 1630s, been subject to law’s punishments but not entitled to its protections. My research traces a history of antinomianism that is framed by African American and Indigenous radical spiritual practices. I forge new connections between antinomianism and Black Studies and Indigenous Studies by articulating how antinomianism can be used to convey a capacious understanding of freedom that refuses to be delimited by law, and an understanding of sovereignty that refuses to be articulated through property. I juxtapose texts from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries to show the numerous ways enslaved, formerly enslaved, and Indigenous Americans imagined, articulated, and practiced freedom by contesting the very terms of civil law. Legal scholars have traced the ways in which the law subordinates Black and Indigenous Americans, in particular by denying them access to property ownership. In order to resist oppression, the people I write about did not directly oppose civil law, but rather circumvented it by adhering instead to the law of God.

My project is the first to use the legacies of the Antinomian Controversy to illuminate the way the Indigenous and the enslaved—groups subjugated by law—turned to the assurance of grace to provisionally resist oppression. I recover the term “antinomian” from its use in the Antinomian Controversy, a religious conflict that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1636-1638. “Antinomian” was a pejorative term applied to the dissident Anne Hutchinson and her followers who believed that one’s salvation could not be granted by adherence to civic authority. This undermined colonial authority by doing away with any spiritual incentive to follow civil law. I re-imagine this concept and delaminate it from seventeenth century white Puritanism in order to describe a rejection of law that is not premised on explicitly opposing legal codes or statutes. The antinomians adhered to a different moral and religious system—God’s law—so in their eyes, colonial authority and civil law did not apply to them. Thus, rather than validate the law by staunchly opposing it, they invalidated the juridical power expressed by the law entirely.

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