Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Survey: Synthesizing Slavery

Few subjects in the survey are more daunting than slavery. How to proceed? For those who focus on primary sources, Hall, Finkelman, and Ely provide a starting point, including an excerpt from the South Carolina Slave Code of 1740, an excerpt from Thomas R.R. Cobb's "Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery," and three cases. The first, State v. Mann has achieved canonical status for its meditation, penned by Judge Thomas Ruffin, on the absolute dominion of the slave-owner over the slave. The second, Souther v. Commonwealth, affirms the conviction of a master for the brutal torture and murder of a slave, and the third recounts the rejection of a slave's manumission by a Mississippi court. Yet, are these sources enough to convey the complexity of master/slave relations in the South? Presser and Zainaldin seem to think no, adding excerpts from Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (1956); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976); the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and 3 slave narratives. While Presser provides more coverage than Hall, the emphasis remains on work done in the 1970s (and earlier), downplaying work conducted in the past decade or so. Yet new work has begun a quiet revolution in the field, casting into doubt the extent to which slave codes and canonical cases like State v. Mann provide a full picture of what was actually going on. For example, in The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South, Laura Edwards makes the claim that "laws regulating slavery existed alongside customary practices" that also played a role in governing master/ slave relations. To prove her point, Edwards recovers stories of slaves beating their masters, stealing their goods, and traveling freely between plantations, indicating that the "power of the master" to quote from Judge Thomas Ruffin, was far from "absolute." In fact, Edwards even recovers the story of one of Thomas Ruffin's slaves, Jesse, who leaves his master's plantation and goes on a spending/drinking spree that lasts several days, violating "any number of laws" in the process. Such findings indicate that masters and slaves entered into what Edwards calls "customary arrangements" that frequently defied formal law, a position supported by other new work, including Anthony E. Kaye's Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South, Christopher Waldrep's Roots of Disorder: Race and Criminal Justice in the American South, 1817-80, and Ariela Gross's Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom. Recovering this customary, unwritten law of slavery seems to be increasingly important, prompting inclusions of new work into the old canon.

Photo credit: UNC Press