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Legal Issues During Chesnutt's Life

(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)



Charles Chesnutt lived during a very peculiar time (1858-1932). Chesnutt was a young boy during the Civil War. Life was rough and unfair for people of color especially those with black blood. Those with even a drop of black blood were mistreated and were rarely, if ever, treated fairly. The following are a few of the court cases from the United States Supreme Court that occurred during Chesnutt's lifetime. They hold some significance to Chesnutt's literary works in one form or another. (Some contain the full text of the case from the US Supreme Court while others contain detailed summaries.)


The Fugitive Slave Cases

Prigg v. Pennsylvania: This case questions the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania Personal Liberty Law. The plantiff, Edward Prigg was charged with kidnapping after he tried to return a runaway slave to the owner. It relates to Chesnutt's story "The Passing of Grandison" in that Grandison, a slave, helped himself as well as his family escape to Canada where they became free persons. (The link contains a detailed account of Prigg v. Pennsylvania.)

Ableman v. Booth: This case deals with an abolitionist who helps a slave to freedom and so is charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Acts. He appealed to the state Supreme Court and was released. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court by U.S. Marshall who arrested the abolitionist. This case is also related to "The Passing of Grandison" because the story talks about abolitionist trying to help free slaves which was what happened with Booth (the abolitionist of course). (The link contains a detailed account of Ableman v. Booth.)

The Great Slavery Case
Dred Scott v. Sandford (the complete text): This case is about a man, Dred Scott, who fought to gain freedom for himself and his family. Scott's first owner died which left him and his family the property of his owner's widow. She then sold them to her brother, John Sanford (misspelled as Sandford). This case is similar to one of Chesnutt's short stories entitled "Po' Sandy" in that one of the characters, Sandy, was sent to various plantations to work. Like Sandy, Scott and his family traveled many times to different states with his first owner. Finally both men got tired of the moving around and wanted their freedom although each took a much different path to try to obtain that freedom.More about the Scott Case
The Seperate But Equal Case
Plessy v. Ferguson: This case deals with a man, Homer Adolph Plessy, who is arrested for trying to ride in the "Whites-Only" carriage of a train. This case concerns several controversial issues. One is the constitutionality of the "Jim Crow" laws. Another is the long debate of the time about how to classify someone of mixed blood. This case relates to all of Chesnutt's stories as well as Chesnutt himself because Plessy is a person of mixed blood which is known as a mullato.More about the Plessy Case

News: This is from a newspaper clipping during Chesnutt's time. It is a short account of a trial from the United States Supreme Court.



  Page created January 1999
Last update: Jan, 29 1999
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