Essays in Romanticism

Habeas corpus and the Politics of Freedom: Slavery and Romantic Suicide

Essays in Romanticism (2015), 22, (1), 21–33.

Abstract

This essay sets Thomas Day and John Bicknell's poem The Dying Negro (1773) against the 1772 trial Somerset v. Stewart, which won a slave his freedom through a successful appeal for a writ of habeas corpus. Day and Bicknell, the essay argues, transform the triumph of habeas corpus into the tragedy of suicide in order to draw attention to paradoxes in Enlightenment liberalism's conception of freedom—paradoxes largely rooted in Lockean notions of property and personhood. Such a reading enables us to view The Dying Negro as central to ongoing reassessments not only of slavery, but also of the cultural meaning of suicide, which takes on a political tenor largely by way of Day and Bicknell's poem. By tracing how the law is made to echo through poetry, the essay finally suggests that sentimentalist abolitionism offers an important context within which to interpret Romanticism's fascination with the subject of suicide.

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Author details

Koretsky, Deanna P.