Date of Award

Fall 1999

Project Type


Program or Major

Early American History

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

W Jeffrey Bolster


In 1834, one of the informal leaders of Boston's black community rebuked a black defendant in court, declaring "the law will make you smart." This dissertation uncovers how African Americans in Massachusetts did indeed become 'smart' through an ongoing engagement with the law for over two hundred years. While the law could be oppressive, the accessibility of the legal system in Massachusetts enabled black women and men, slave and free, to learn to use the law in efforts to exercise some control over their daily lives. In the deteriorating racial atmosphere during the first half of the nineteenth century, the law remained one of the few arenas in which African Americans had any hope of experiencing the professed egalitarian ideals of the new republic. But the law also instructed African Americans about the value of establishing and maintaining individual legal boundaries between themselves and others, black and white. Through their engagement with the law, African Americans developed a legal consciousness that fostered a sense of themselves as autonomous individuals. After emancipation, that legal consciousness combined with a legal rights ideology to help define what it meant to be African American. That legal rights ideology eventually became an integral part of free black identity when African American leaders, who had expressed little identification with the new nation in the first decades after the American Revolution, began to explicitly identify black men and women as American in response to attempts by some whites to deny African Americans an American identity and citizenship. Black leaders anchored their argument in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and articulated a black identity defined in part by commitment to achieving full citizenship rights. When some black Bostonians balked in that commitment, some black leaders attempted to define them as standing outside of the black community. What it meant to be free, black, and American, remained a complex and at times contentious issue complicated by the evolution of legal consciousness and legal rights ideology.