In the half-century following the Revolutionary War, the logic of inequality underwent a profound transformation within the southern legal system. Drawing on extensive archival research in North and South Carolina, Laura F. Edwards illuminates those changes by revealing the importance of localized legal practice.
Edwards shows that following the Revolution, the intensely local legal system favored maintaining the "peace," a concept intended to protect the social order and its patriarchal hierarchies. Ordinary people, rather than legal professionals and political leaders, were central to its workings. Those without rights--even slaves--had influence within the system because of their positions of subordination, not in spite of them. By the 1830s, however, state leaders had secured support for a more centralized system that excluded people who were not specifically granted individual rights, including women, African Americans, and the poor. Edwards concludes that the emphasis on rights affirmed and restructured existing patriarchal inequalities, giving them new life within state law with implications that affected all Americans.
Placing slaves, free blacks, and white women at the center of the story, The People and Their Peace recasts traditional narratives of legal and political change and sheds light on key issues in U.S. history, including the persistence of inequality--particularly slavery--in the face of expanding democracy.
"This extraordinary book, powerfully conceived and beautifully written, casts a brilliant light on the mysterious processes by which local discretionary justice in the early American republic was gradually overlaid--though never entirely supplanted--by a central, formal state law of rules and rights. From research in thousands of archives, Laura Edwards has brought to life the hierarchical yet communal world of local law in the Carolinas, where rich and poor, husbands and wives, masters and even some slaves brought their claims before courts committed to repair breaches of public order. This book is a pioneering contribution to legal history. It is also a deep and subtle commentary on the rule of law. Subordinate peoples may sometimes fare better in informal regimes that allow their participation than in formal legal systems of individual rights, from which, if they have no rights, they may be shut out entirely."--Robert W. Gordon, Chancellor Kent Professor of Law
and Legal History, Yale Law School
"The People and Their Peace is a landmark book. Edwards recovers a whole world of ground-level activity, thinking, and assumptions about law, and then uses that yet unmapped legal world to rethink the legal history we do know--the world of 'the law' controlled by legislatures, jurists, and high courts. This profoundly significant analysis is grounded in a wealth of evidence and argued persuasively, often elegantly."--Dylan Penningroth, author of The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South