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William Johnson's hypothesis: A free black man and the problem of legal knowledge in the antebellum United States South

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Abstract

This essay uses the diary of free black barber and Natchez, Mississippi, businessman William T. Johnson as a means to explore the extent to which one black man in the antebellum U.S. South knew the law; how he came to know it; and what role he saw it play in his life and community. In recent years, scholars have paid increasing attention to black Americans' engagement with the legal system in the pre-Civil War U.S. South and have undermined the notion that black people were legal outsiders. In particular, they have shown that African Americans in the slave South were legal actors in their own right and were legally savvy. Yet what does it mean when scholars say that free blacks and slaves knew how to use the law? This essay uses Johnson's diary to demystify the phrase to know the law and shows that we speak of knowing the law, we speak of a remarkably complex and uneven phenomenon, one best mapped on a case-to-case basis. Understanding what it meant to know the law sometimes requires examining an individual's personal theory or hypothesis of what law does for them.

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Welch, K. (2019). William Johnson’s hypothesis: A free black man and the problem of legal knowledge in the antebellum United States South. Law and History Review, 37(1), 89–124. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0738248018000640

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