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Hendrik Hartog, “Justice and Dilemmas of Gradual Emancipation: A Case of Arson in 1815”

In 1815, Hartog explains, the Eagle Fire Insurance Company, one of the first fire insurance companies in the new nation, agreed to insure a large house (or hotel) on the Jersey shore for 10,000 dollars. The insurance policy had been purchased by John Quay, a judge and a prominent political figure in Monmouth County, New Jersey. A few weeks later the structure mysteriously burned to the ground. The question of who set the fire­­—and why—became the subject of a legal trial in New York City. The case hinged on the question of who was a slave vs. who was free, and offered on the part of the trial lawyers (according to one reporter) “one of the most splendid exhibitions of talent, on both sides, perhaps ever witnessed.”

Throughout his distinguished academic career, Hartog has focused his research and teaching on the social history of American law, and the difficulties and opportunities that come with studying how broad political and cultural themes have been expressed in ordinary legal conflicts. His April 21st O’Fallon lecture comes out of his current research on the long legal history of slavery in New Jersey. He has also worked on a variety of other topics in American legal history including the history of city life; the history of constitutional rights claims; the history of marriage, the history of inheritance and old age, and the historiography of legal change.

Hendrik Hartog is the Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty at Princeton University. He is the author of Public Property and Private Power: the Corporation of the City of New York in American Law, 1730-1870 (1983); Man and Wife in America: a History (2000); and Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age (2012). In 2015, his book on marriage was cited in the majority opinion in Obergefeld v. Hodges, where the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. He is currently a visiting fellow at the New York Historical Society, where he is working on two books about legal change in early nineteenth century New York and New Jersey.