For many of us today, the artifice of legal personhood — the corporate person in particular — provokes outrage. Focusing on the legal fiction of slave personhood, this paper argues that in the 19th-century U.S. the greater danger came from naturalizing this artifice by attaching it to actual African American people, regardless of condition. This reconsideration of legal personhood contributes to current efforts by political theorists, legal historians, classicists, and philosophers to historicize the concept of dignity prior to the 20th-century human rights regime. What critic and novelist Ralph Ellison once called “the indignities of slavery,” DeLombard contends, pertained less to the metaphysical value of humans than to the status of legal persons.
“Racing Rank” is the first chapter from DeLombard’s current book manuscript, Bound to Respect: Democratic Dignity and the Indignities of Slavery.
Sponsored by the IHC’s Slavery, Captivity, and the Meaning of Freedom Research Focus Group