nl en

Slavery, Self-Emancipation, and Spaces of Freedom in North America, 1775-1865


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges.


This seminar will investigate how enslaved people directly confronted the institution of slavery in North America through acts of self-emancipation. The Age of Revolutions saw the first major challenges to the institution of slavery on the continent (and the western hemisphere). Between the American Revolution and US Civil War (ca.1775-1865), the geopolitical landscape of slavery and freedom witnessed dramatic transformations. Black enslavement was abolished in the northern US, Canada, and Mexico. Conversely, the institution of slavery rapidly expanded across the US South, largely due to agricultural and economic transformations (namely the advent of cotton and sugar plantation-based economies). By the mid-nineteenth century, North America resembled a patchwork terrain of ‘slave’ and ‘free’ soil spaces. Historian Damian Pargas formulated a new typology that distinguishes between spaces of ‘formal’ freedom (Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas), ‘semi-formal’ freedom (the northern US), and ‘informal’ freedom (the US South).

Enslaved African Americans broke free from the chains of their enslavement to secure their freedom. Slave refugees took advantage of the shifting geopolitical landscape to emancipate themselves. During wartime, self-emancipators liberated themselves and fled to the enemies of their enslavers. Over time, enslaved African Americans sought refuge in spaces of informal, formal, and semi-formal freedom to claim their permanent freedom. Freedom seekers fled from the US South to the free Black communities in southern cities, to the northern US and Canada, to Mexico and the Caribbean. During the US Civil War, enslaved people escaped to Union lines to free themselves from bondage. Through their actions, slave refugees not only secured their freedom but also dealt significant blows to the institution of slavery. Without question, the actions of Black freedom seekers were indispensable to the abolition of black enslavement in North America.

This course will examine how enslaved African Americans undermined the legitimacy of black enslavement between the American Revolution and the US Civil War. Transnational and continental in scope, this course will explore the migrations of Black refugees across North America. Furthermore, it will analyze how the boundaries of slavery and freedom gradually shifted across the continent during this period. This course will introduce students to key secondary and primary sources related to enslaved African Americans and slave refugees, abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, and other relevant topics.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

  • 1) carry out a common assignment;

  • 2) devise and conduct research of limited scope, including:
    a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature;
    b. organizing and using relatively large amounts of information;
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate;
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.

  • 3) reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;

  • 4) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the first year Themacolleges, including:
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and sub-questions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.

  • 5) participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialization

  • 6) The student has knowledge of a specialization, more specifically:

-in the specialization General History : the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions;
-in the track American History: American exceptionalism; the US as a multicultural society and the consequences of that for historiography; the intellectual interaction between the US and Europe.

  • 7) Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialization, more specifically of
    -in the specialization General History: the study of primary sources and the context specificity of nationally defined histories;
    -in the track American History: exceptionalism; analysis of historiographical and intellectual debates.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

The student will:

  • 8) obtain an understanding of slavery and self-emancipation between the American Revolution and US Civil War;

  • 9) improve their knowledge of the changing geopolitical landscape of slavery and freedom in North America;

  • 10) examine the history of slavery, self-emancipation, and Black Migrations through a transnational and continental lens;

  • 11) learn how the actions of slave refugees directly contributed to the abolition of slavery in North America;

  • 12) acquire insight into key historiographical debates;

  • 13) develop a critical perspective when analyzing relevant primary sources, such as escaped slave advertisements and slave narratives;

  • 14) enhance their research and writing skills to produce a final research paper related to the primary course themes;

  • 15) improve their oral presentation skills.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (attendance required)

This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If you are not able to attend, you are required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If you do not comply with the aforementioned requirements, you will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (5,000-6,000 words, based on historiography and primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 6-14

  • Assignment 1: literature review (500 words, +/−10% excluding footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 6-14

  • Assignment 2: primary source document analysis (900 words, +/−10% excluding footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives 1-3; 6-14

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 6-15

  • Attendance and participation
    measured learning objectives: 5


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Assignment 1: literature review: 10%

  • Assignment 2: primary source document analysis: 10%

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Attendance and Participation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


The written paper can be revised and re-submitted when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline, as published in the corresponding Brightspace course.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

The course will make use of the following books:

  • Damian Alan Pargas (ed.), Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom of Freedom in North America (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2018).

  • Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

Both books are available as e-books via the Leiden University Library catalog. They are also available on Amazon and other online retailers.

Additional readings will be listed by the instructor in the syllabus.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.


Not applicable.