Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





James Oakes


David Waldstreicher

Committee Members

David Waldstreicher

Herman Bennett

Benjamin Carp

Steven Pincus

Subject Categories

Intellectual History | Legal | Other History | Political History | United States History


slavery, antislavery, British Empire, Colonial America, Massachusetts, Virginia


This Species of Property examines the development of the law and practice of slavery in the 17th and 18th century Anglo-American empire through analysis of common law court decisions in England, Massachusetts, and Virginia. The dissertation argues that there was a long and vibrant debate over the legitimacy of the chattel principle – the definition of enslaved persons as a type of property – and that enslaved people and their allies pushed for the recognition of the legal humanity or subjecthood of the enslaved in colonial and metropolitan courts. This antislavery legal tradition culminated in the famous Somerset decision, handed down by the Court of King’s Bench in 1772, paved the way for judicial abolition in revolutionary Massachusetts, and shaped the contours of early national American antislavery. Defenses of property-in-man that developed throughout the colonial period to answer these critiques, however, also remained potent, shaping the development of proslavery thought in Virginia and preventing concerted antislavery action during and after the American Revolution. By situating the development of colonial American slavery in an imperial context, This Species of Property illustrates the ways in which broader political, economic, and social developments throughout the empire influenced the development of slave law in specific jurisdictions, and how these local developments redounded back onto the metropole, shaping imperial policy and the place of slavery in the new American republic. It also restores a longue durée chronological approach to colonial history, demonstrating how Anglo-American slavery developed over time in response to specific local and imperial contexts. Finally, the dissertation illustrates the myriad ways in which enslaved persons influenced the development of slavery by taking up the mantle of English and British subjecthood, making claims on the local and imperial state through the courts and forcing Anglo-Americans on both sides of the Atlantic to grapple with the contradictions inherent to property-in-man.