I am delighted to announce that Happy Dreams of Liberty has been awarded the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Book Prize from the American Society for Legal History. I've always conceptualized this book as a family history first and foremost, so to be counted among legal historians is an honor.
Throughout the research and writing process for this book, I faced the same challenges that any historian of slavery faces: the difficulty of finding the voices and experiences of enslaved people in the archive. In this case, I used a legal archive. It's a family history told through wills, inventories, financial statements, and depositions. (Word to the wise: depositions are where you find all the juicy gossip.) I tried to use these legal sources as creatively as I could to reconstruct the lives of the Townsend family in slavery and the ways that the law shaped the possibilities for their lives in freedom.
Not surprisingly, the prize committee was particularly interested in S. D. Cabaniss, a Huntsville attorney who features prominently in the book. When the fabulously wealthy cotton planter Samuel Townsend left a will naming his enslaved children his rightful heirs, Cabaniss was the one responsible for making sure his client's wishes were carried out. After four years of litigation, he did just that, and in 1860 the Townsends went free.
Personally, I have no love for the long-dead lawyer, but I have to admit I couldn't have written this book without him. Cabaniss was a meticulous record-keeper, and he saved everything: the S. D. Cabaniss Papers at the University of Alabama special collections library contain thousands of documents related to the Townsend family, including two boxes of letters written by the formerly enslaved Townsends themselves.
In life, Cabaniss often silenced the Townsends and limited their choices. In death, the archive he left preserved their voices, allowing historians like me to share them with the world. In the end, I think the Townsends got the last word.