The Freedom of a Broken Law: Antinomianism and Abolition in American Literature

Hannah Manshel
UC Riverside

This project envisages an unconventional history of antinomianism, the belief that civil law is nullified by the assurance of God’s grace, to offer a new way of conceptualizing the American literary tradition from 1630 to the 1860s. Antinomianism reconfigures this tradition to show how it is animated by the spiritual and theological practices of radical abolition. The project tracks antinomianism’s appearance as a mode of resistance to law available to enslaved and Indigenous people subject to law’s violence, but not entitled to its protection, and also as a raced and gendered threat to hegemonic white legal order. By de-activating law and turning instead to grace, antinomianism can suspend civil law’s constitutive violence. Through analyses of writing by Puritans, white nineteenth century authors, and black feminist and Indigenous dissenters, this dissertation shows how law-nullifying spiritual practices offer a loophole through which legal non-persons can provisionally practice liberation. Because antinomianism does not rely upon direct opposition, it is a productive term through which to theorize modes of resistance available to those for whom agentive rebellion is not available.