Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Edwards, Status without Rights: African Americans and the Tangled History of Law and Governance in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. South
Posted by Mary L. Dudziak
Status without Rights: African Americans and the Tangled History of Law and Governance in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. South, by LAURA F. EDWARDS, Dept. of History, Duke University, has just appeared in the American Historical Review (available on-line). Here's the preview: During the Civil War and Reconstruction, former slaves in the South regularly submitted claims through formal legal channels. In general, historians have placed African Americans' initiatives in the courts against the backdrop of the era's dramatic legal changes, without considering why they so readily resorted to legal means in the first place. In "Status without Rights: African Americans and the Tangled History of Law and Governance in the Nineteenth-Century U.S. South," Laura F. Edwards explores this question by linking freedpeople's use of the legal system to the legal culture of the Antebellum South, focusing specifically on the aspect of the law dealing with matters of public or communal concern. These matters related, not to the protection of individual rights, but to the maintenance of public peace. And the highly localized nature of the process meant that such matters involved peopleslaves, free blacks and other subordinateswho lacked the right to participate in other legal matters and in other aspects of the legal system. Consequently, not only were many southerners familiar with the legal process, but they also viewed the legal system primarily as a means for keeping the peace, not for the protection of individual rights. These expectations are crucial for understanding why former slaves made use of the legal system after the Civil War even though they could not claim the individual rights which historians now identify as its foundation. Edwards' article serves as a further lesson in how subordinate people could turn institutions to their own purposes and in the importance of understanding the value system that determines the primary purpose of these institutions as well.