Did France Invent the Free Soil Principle?

From the 15th through the 19th centuries, hundreds of slaves sought and won their freedom on the basis of the Free Soil principle, that any slave who crossed particular national or state borders thereby became free. The Free Soil principle had already been in a range of much earlier legal instruments and jurisdictions, including medieval cities' customs of Stadtluft macht frei, French royal maxims and statutes, Dutch and Spanish legal decisions, and a Portuguese ministerial declaration. In the 2011 Paul H. Beik lecture (8:14), historian Sue Peabody explores where the Free Soil principle came from and what its implications were for Atlantic colonialism, abolitionism, and the development of the modern nation state. Peabody is Edward G. Meyer Professor of Liberal Arts at Washington State University Vancouver and specializes in the history of slavery, freedom, and the law in the French empire, 1600-1850. She is past president of the French Colonial Historical Society and serves on the editorial board of French Colonial History. She is currently writing the biography of Furcy, a slave who won his freedom before France's Cour royal on the basis of the Free Soil principle in 1843. This lecture series honors the memory of Paul H. Beik, an historian of France and Russia, who taught and mentored Swarthmore students in history from 1945 to 1980. The 2011 Beik Lecture also celebrates historian Robert S. DuPlessis' career.