Holly Brewer is the Burke Professor of American History and an associate professor at the University of Maryland. She works on debates about justice in early America and the British Empire through the revolutionary period and into the nineteenth century. She is the author of By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005), which won three national prizes in legal history, as well as of the prizewinning "Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia" (The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2 April 1997). She is currently finishing a book on the ideological origins of slavery in early America and the British Empire for which she received a Guggenheim fellowship. She is a keen supporter of K–12 history education and has provided content lectures on the prerevolutionary period for AP U.S. history teachers.
In order for slavery to develop in the British empire, it needed a legal basis. This lecture explores how that legal basis was created in the face of parliament's refusal, in the 1660s and 1670s, to pass a slave code for the empire. With the support of Charles II and James II, high court judges in England created the legal foundation for considering people as property, crafting a common law foundation for slavery across the empire, one that had immediate impact in the expansion and financing of slavery. When those high court decisions began to be challenged in England itself during the eighteenth century, parliament stepped in to reinforce them for the empire. These decisions laid the basis for legal and financial claims for property in people that anchored slavery in all American states where it continued to be legal in the nineteenth century. But from the very beginning some argued that no one can have property in another. This lecture therefore provides two centuries of debate on the question of property in people that preceded both Dred Scot (1857) and the Civil War. In doing so it traces how arguments about who was a subject versus who was an alien (and what rights aliens have) contributed to the development of American slavery.