The Library of Virginia has a wonderful blog ("Out of the Box") where archivists tell the stories of people, places, and things found among the library’s collections. This week, the blog told the story of Jane Webb, a mixed-race free woman who, in 1704, offered to serve 7 years as an indentured servant with the owner of her enslaved lover in consideration for her lover’s freedom and permission to marry. In addition, Webb promised to let the owner (Thomas Savage) “have all the children that should be bornd [sic] upon her body” during the period of servitude. The owner agreed, and (remarkably) a written contract was executed between Savage and Webb. At the conclusion of the 7 years, however, Savage refused to release either Webb’s husband or their children; Savage claimed that the agreement entitled him to all of Webb’s children, for a period of time exceeding her indenture. Over the next 16 years, Webb and Savage battled in successive court cases in which each of them claimed the right to Webb’s children and her (now) husband. In one of the cases, Savage claimed that Webb’s poverty rendered her unfit to care for her children (as “they may be induced to take ill courses”). Ultimately, Savage (and his heirs) succeeded: Webb’s case was dismissed in 1727, and, despite her efforts, her children and husband remained bound to Savage.
The case is an interesting on a number of legal/academic fronts (property, evidence, labor, children & the law, etc.) – I’m most interested in Webb’s attempt to bind herself and her unborn children in exchange for her betrothed. Scholars of slavery in the U.S. have wrestled insufficiently with what can be called “voluntary” servitude and enslavement. For free blacks during this era, a web (no pun intended) of hostile legislation threatened to plunge them into perpetual slavery for even minor infractions; faced with the prospects of familial separation and geographic exile (if trafficked further South), free blacks throughout the South petitioned legislatures and courts requesting enslavement. Through this mechanism, free blacks transformed themselves into property – and their petitions provide critical insight into the role of law, race, labor, family, and limits of “freedom” in the lives of the nominally free. Can slavery ever be voluntary? If yes, what are the implications for our Thirteenth Amendment jurisprudence and courts' refusals to enforce personal service agreements? I look forward to your thoughts on this.