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Review of Paul Finkelman’s “Supreme Injustice”

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Dred Scott, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Laws of Slavery, liberal arts, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Scholarship, Southern History, The South, Writing on August 8, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Paul Finkelman is an anomaly: a historian with no law degree who’s held chairs or fellowships at numerous law schools, testified as an expert witness in high-profile cases, and filed amicus briefs with several courts. Federal appellate judges, including justices on the United States Supreme Court, have cited his work. Liberal arts professors anxious about the state and fate of their discipline might look to him to demonstrate the practical relevance of the humanities to everyday society.

Finkelman specializes in American legal history, slavery and the law, constitutional law, and race and the law. His new book, Supreme Injustice, tells the story of three United States Supreme Court Justices — John Marshall, Joseph Story, and Roger B. Taney — and their “slavery jurisprudence.” Each of these men, Finkelman argues, differed in background and methodology but shared the belief that antislavery agitation undermined the legal and political structures instituted by the Constitution. Had they aligned their operative principles with the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, liberty rather than racism and oppression might have defined antebellum America.

Finkelman insists that the legacy of Marshall, Story, and Taney had enormous implications for the state of the nation, strengthening the institutions of slavery and embedding in the law a systemic hostility to fundamental freedom and basic justice. These are strong allegations, attributed to only three individuals. Yet the evidence adds up.

Start with Marshall, a perennially celebrated figure who, unlike many of his generation, in particular his occasional nemesis Thomas Jefferson, has escaped scrutiny on matters of race and slavery. Finkelman submits that scholarship on Marshall is “universally admiring” — an overstatement perhaps, but one that underscores the prevalence of the mythology Finkelman hopes to dispel.

Finkelman emphasizes Marshall’s “personal ties to slavery” and “considerable commitment to owning other human beings.” He combs through numerous records and presents ample data to establish that Marshall, a life member of the American Colonization Society, “actively participated in slavery on a very personal level.” Finkelman then turns to Marshall’s votes and opinions in cases, several of which challenged state laws and rulings that freed slaves. In fact, Marshall would go so far as to overturn the verdicts of white Southern jurors and the judgments of white Southern judges who, in freedom suits, sided with slaves and against masters.

Marshall could be an ardent nationalist attempting to effectuate the supremacy of federal law. One is therefore tempted to attribute his rulings against state laws in cases about slavery to his longstanding desire to centralize federal power. But that is only part of the story. Finkelman brings to light exceptions, including when Marshall selectively deferred to state law if doing so meant that slaves remained the property of their masters. Finkelman highlights these decisions to show that Marshall was hypocritical, compromising his otherwise plenary nationalism to ensure that contractual and property arrangements regarding slaves were protected by law.

Story was also a nationalist, having evolved from Jeffersonianism to anti-Jeffersonianism and eventually becoming Marshall’s jurisprudential adjunct. Unlike Marshall, however, Story could sound “like a full-blown abolitionist.” His opinion in United States v. La Jeune Eugenie (1822) was “an antislavery tour de force,” decrying slavery and the slave trade as “repugnant to the natural rights of man and the dictates of judges.”

Yet he prioritized radical nationalism over the rights of humans in bondage. In Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), writing for the Court, he deemed unconstitutional a state ban on the extradition of blacks out of Pennsylvania for purposes of slavery. Story jumped at the chance to pronounce the primacy of federal law over state law even if it meant employing the Supremacy Clause to validate the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. “A justice who had once thought slavery was deeply immoral,” Finkelman bemoans,

rewrote history, misstated precedents, and made up new constitutional doctrine to nationalize southern slave law and impose it on the entire nation. The decision jeopardized the liberty of every black in the North, whether free or fugitive. The injustice of this opinion was profound.

Author of the notorious Dred Scott opinion, Taney is the most predictable of Finkelman’s targets. By the end of the Civil War, he was vehemently denounced and widely despised. Progressives in the early 20th century, most notably Felix Frankfurter, rehabilitated his reputation in part because progressive economic policy during that era promoted Taney’s approach to states’ rights and political decentralization. The mood has changed; most historians now probably agree that Taney “aggressively protected slavery” and “made war on free blacks.” Few law professors would recall Taney’s “early ambivalence about slavery and his defense of the Reverend Jacob Gruber,” who was arrested for sermonizing against slavery at a Methodist camp meeting and subsequently charged with inciting slave rebellion. Finkelman’s chapter on Taney thus runs with the grain, not against it.

At times Finkelman exaggerates or wishfully portrays the role of judges. He asserts that, prior to the Civil War, courts rather than Congress or the executive had “room for protecting the liberty of free blacks, liberating some slaves, providing due process for alleged fugitive slaves, enforcing the federal suppression of the African slave trade, or preventing slavery from being established in federal territories.” This claim may hold up in some of the cases Finkelman discusses (e.g., LaGrange v. Choteau [1830], in which Marshall declined the opportunity to enforce federal law that could have freed a slave who had traveled into free territory), but not in all of them. If a judge were faced with a problem of statutory construction, he (there were only male judges then) could have asked what the language of the statute meant, how it applied to the concrete facts and material rules before him, and whether it was constitutional, but anything more would have arguably exceeded the scope of his office.

The Constitution was silent about slavery until the Civil War Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments. Prior to them, any attempt to render slavery unconstitutional would have required appeals to natural law, natural rights, or other like doctrines that appear in the Constitution only in spirit, not in letter. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed the Constitution was affirmatively proslavery, calling it a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” If this is true, then when judges swear an oath to defend the Constitution (the basic framework of government with which all other laws in the United States must comport), they are also inadvertently vowing to defend the institution of slavery — unless the law is more than what statutes and the Constitution provide, in which case these judges could reach beyond the positive law to principles pre-political and universal.

Finkelman suggests another alternative: that certain constitutional provisions supplied a basis in positive law for antislavery strategies and stratagem. He cites, among other things, the congressional powers exercised in the reenactment of the Northwest Ordinance and the enactment of the Missouri Compromise and Oregon Territory; the admission of new free states into the United States; the due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment; the rights of criminal defendants protected by the Sixth Amendment; the Privileges and Immunities Clause; and the guarantees of the First Amendment.

Each of these would have been problematic during the period Finkelman covers. There was not yet a 14th Amendment through which provisions of the Bill of Rights could have been incorporated to apply against the several states, although state constitutions contained protections of fundamental rights that federal judges recognized and affirmed. Moreover, the provisions Finkelman enumerates empowered Congress, not the courts, to pursue robust antislavery measures. Courts could have responded to and interpreted actions and directives of Congress, but they could not have initiated legislation or litigation. Had the Constitution enabled federal judges and the United States Supreme Court to strike down proslavery laws and regulations with ease, the Civil War Amendments might not have been necessary. But they were necessary to facilitate the demise of slavery.

Finkelman speculates about what the courts could have done to advance antislavery causes, but courts cannot do anything unless the right litigants bring the right cases with the right facts before the right tribunals while making the right arguments. Judges do not commence lawsuits but handle the ones brought before them. Finkelman could have examined some cases more closely to reveal how the facts, issues, reasoning, and holdings should have differed in rationale, not just in result. Too many cases receive only cursory treatment; lawsuits are more than picking winners and losers.

At one point, Finkelman accuses Marshall of reading a statute “in favor of slavery and not freedom,” but the statute isn’t quoted. Readers will have to look up the case to decide if Marshall’s interpretation was reasonable or arbitrary — if, that is, his hermeneutics adequately reflected a common understanding of the statutory language or intolerably controverted congressional purpose and prerogative. Finkelman chides departures from precedent, but rarely analyzes the allegedly controlling cases to verify that they are, in fact, dispositive of the later controversy by analogy of received rules.

One is regularly left with the impression that the only issue in the cases Finkelman evaluates was whether a slave should be free or not. Many of the cases, however, involved procedural and jurisdictional complexities that had to be resolved before grand political holdings implicating the entire institution of slavery could be reached. We’re still debating the ambiguities of federalism (e.g., how to square the Supremacy Clause with the Ninth and 10th Amendments) that complicate any exposition of the interplay between state and federal law, so it can seem anachronistic and quixotic to condemn Marshall, Story, or Taney for not untangling state and federal law in a manner that in retrospect would appear to have occasioned more freedom and less bondage.

Then again, it’s hard to fault Finkelman for subjecting these giants of the law to such high standards. That men like Marshall and Story have not been investigated as their contemporaries have in light of the horrors and effects of slavery speaks volumes about the willful blindness of the legal profession and the deficiencies of legal scholarship. Finkelman remains an important voice in legal education and has pushed scholarly conversations about slavery in new directions. At 68, he’s likely got more books left in him. Anxious readers await the next.

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Review of “Emigration to Liberia” by Matthew F.K. McDaniel

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Georgia, Historicism, History, Humanities, Laws of Slavery, Politics, Scholarship, Slavery, Southern History, Southern Literary Review, The South, Writing on November 26, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This review originally appeared here at Southern Literary Review.

Emigration to Liberia is the story of the nearly 500 African-Americans who left Columbus, Georgia, and Eufaula, Alabama, from 1853 to 1903, to emigrate to Liberia, the West African nation that was founded in 1822 by United States colonization.

Matthew F.K. McDaniel marshals evidence from written correspondence and newspapers to piece together the first narrative treatment of those African-American emigrants from this specific region, which he calls the “Chattahoochee Valley.” He contends that the establishment of Liberia united many Northerners and Southerners for different reasons, namely, in the North, for the gradual abolition of slavery, and, in the South, for the stability of the slave system once freed African-Americans were removed from the purview of their brothers and sisters in bondage.

Liberian emigrants from the Chattahoochee Valley made up roughly ten percent of the total number of emigrants to Liberia from the entire United States; therefore, the story of the migration from this region reveals much about the overall characteristics of the entire emigrant movement and provides clues as to why many emigrants decided to leave in the first place.

“To blacks,” McDaniel explains, “the prospect of Liberia was escape, safety, and opportunity. They could own their own land in their own country and be governed by their own people. Liberia was a new start and a new future for families, far from the whites who had oppressed them.”

McDaniel supplies enough historiography to interest and benefit historians working in the field, but enough narrative to engage non-specialists. At only 64 pages, excluding the highly useful notes and bibliography, his book can be read in a single sitting. Its brevity has to do with the fact that it began as a 2007 master’s thesis in history at the Louisiana State University. Credit must be given to the editors at NewSouth Books for having the wisdom, faith, and generosity to take a chance on such a short but important work.

Settled by Europeans between 1816 and 1823, Eufaula fell into the hands of whites after the 1832 Treaty of Cusseta forced the Creek Indians off their ancestral land. Columbus was founded in 1828, six years after the founding of Liberia. The future of the African Americans who remained in Eufaula and Columbus turned out to be much different from that of the emigrants to Liberia, many of whom suffered or returned to America.

“Liberia was neither American or African,” McDaniel submits, “but a strange medley of the two worlds, and it disappointed many of the Chattahoochee Valley emigrants,” who became stuck “within a stringent social hierarchy” that was “similar to the one they had escaped from.” They were not used to the tropical climate and were not skilled in the work that was specific to the region; they discovered, too, that the native Liberian elite “mimicked the customs and styles of the whites who had once looked down upon them.”

An appendix rounds out McDaniel’s research by listing the names, ages, sexes, and, among other things, occupations of all the emigrants who sailed in either the 1867 or 1868 voyages to Liberia aboard the ship Golconda. To run your finger down the list, slowly, is to invite questions about who these people were, what they were like, what they did for entertainment, what their wishes and dreams were, what they were leaving behind and hoping to accomplish with their move to Africa, and what happened to them after they arrived there. Facts and data are limited, so, in many cases, we cannot know for sure.

McDaniel has done well with what information he had available to him. Let’s hope he’s inspired others to pick up where he left off. This is a story worth telling and knowing.

Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and the Case of Howell v. Netherland

In America, American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Laws of Slavery, Slavery, Southern History, Thomas Jefferson on April 23, 2014 at 8:45 am

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Howell v. Netherland was a Virginia case about the child of an interracial sexual union. Decided in April 1770, Howell opens with the account of the plaintiff’s grandmother, “a mulatto, begotten on a white woman by a negro man, after the year 1705, and bound by the churchwardens, under the law of that date, to serve to the age of thirty-one.”[1] The plaintiff, Howell, sued Netherland for his freedom. Netherland had purchased Howell from a previous owner, who had also owned Howell’s mother and grandfather.

A twenty-seven-year-old Thomas Jefferson served as Howell’s attorney. He argued inter alia that Howell’s grandmother was white, but more importantly that “under the law of nature, all men are born free.”[2] This position makes Howell a precursor to the landmark Somerset case in 1772.[3] “This is what is called personal liberty,” Jefferson says of freedom under the law of nature, “and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.”[4] Jefferson adds that “every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.”[5] Such language, coming six years before the Declaration of Independence and eleven years before the first edition of Notes on the State of Virginia, is striking for its seeming emphasis on equality under the natural law.

Jefferson’s opposing counsel in this case was George Wythe, the man who had trained Jefferson in legal practice and who arguably did more during his lifetime than Jefferson to oppose the institution of slavery. In this case, however, Wythe remains the steadfast defender of a slave owner. This fact should remind us of the contingencies of lawyering and the conditions and qualifications that attach to any line of reasoning or rhetoric appearing in court documents about slavery.

When we review archives from the era of slavery in America, we must remember that a lawyer’s words cannot be taken as representative of his thoughts or worldview: he is a participant in a legal contest and advocating for the interests of his client. What Jefferson or Wythe thought about slavery cannot be deduced from this case, so attempts at such deduction should not be made.

[1] Howell v. Netherland, Jefferson 90, April 1770, available in Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Vol. 1 (New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1968) at 90-91.

[2] Ibid., my italics.

[3] William G. Merkel, “Jefferson’s Failed Anti-Slavery Proviso of 1784 and the Nascence of Free Soil Constitutionalism,” 38 Seton Hall L. Rev. 555 (2008) at 559.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

The American Founders and Natural Law Jurisprudence

In America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, Christianity, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Laws of Slavery, Liberalism, Literature, Philosophy, Slavery, Southern History, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on April 9, 2014 at 8:45 am

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The American founders, many of them, validated their political cause and secession from Britain by resorting to natural law theories and paradigms.[i] Thomas Jefferson memorialized these theories and paradigms in the Declaration of Independence.[ii] While studying nature and the physical world, Jefferson extended natural law jurisprudence while revising it to fit the needs and settings of the New World.[iii] Rather than looking to divine or moral prescription to ground his natural law theories, Jefferson looked to nature. He borrowed from Newtonian ideas about the laws of the universe and applied them to the laws of man.[iv] A human law was, by this logic, akin to the law of gravity.

The American insistence on natural law was a reaction to the analytical positivism gaining credence in Britain.[v] This school of jurisprudence found its fullest expression in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Austin. These men treated laws as linguistic constructs: commands that attained the status of law because people followed them, not because they reflected a priori or transcendent rules of the cosmos. American founders such as Jefferson saw natural law as a way to distinguish themselves from their British counterparts and to define what it meant to be American. William Blackstone, one of the few British jurists still clinging to natural law principles,[vi] enjoyed vast success from American purchases of Commentaries on the Laws of England.[vii] The popularity of this treatise in America had to do with Blackstone’s support for ideals that, from the colonials’ perspective, affirmed Revolutionary rhetoric and philosophical principles.[viii] Blackstone died in 1780. His death ushered in the age of positive law jurisprudence in England.[ix]

In America, however, natural law picked up momentum in the wake of the Revolution and American independence.[x] That ideas of natural law flourished during the Enlightenment, especially in America where institutions were supposed to reflect—indeed embody—Enlightenment principles, is curious because the Enlightenment glorified reason and humanism: progressive concepts seemingly incongruous with a moral theory derived from ancient church teachings and philosophical orthodoxies. This disjuncture reveals the extent to which colonials sought to divorce their culture and communities from the British. Á la Blackstone, colonials would go great lengths to “prove” their natural law theories through application of the scientific method and appeals to reason.[xi] Natural law jurisprudence did, in fact, fit within a scientific and rational framework in many important respects. For instance, natural law, like laws of the natural world putatively discoverable by reason, logic, and experiment, were by definition universal. Just as truths about the external world allegedly were deduced through sustained study of specimens and species, so truths about the human condition were, natural theorists argued, deduced through sustained study of human behavior and the history of the races.[xii] In this sense, colonial jurists viewed natural law not as retrograde, superstitious, or religious, but as cutting-edge and scientific. Americans were not alone in their attention to the scientific elements of law. In Western and Central Europe during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, rulers and leaders “sought to rationalize their legal systems, to make law scientific, to extend it in a vernacular language evenly over their territories, and to put an end to the earlier jumble of customs, privileges, and local rights.”[xiii] Save for Blackstone’s efforts, however, this scientific trend did not gain much traction in England.[xiv]

Early Americans, particularly northerners[xv] but also Virginians such as Jefferson and George Mason, celebrated the ideals of natural law and natural rights appearing in the Declaration, but they found those ideals difficult to implement in everyday practice. Although staunchly committed to the principles of natural law, the colonials, at least those with representation or voice in the political sphere, discovered that abstract philosophy did not readily translate into workaday rules and regulations.[xvi] “It was one thing,” submits David Brion Davis, “to state abstract propositions, and quite another to decide how the law applied to a particular case.”[xvii] Above all, the “peculiar institution” of American slavery called into question the Enlightenment values upon which American natural law jurisprudence depended. Cries of freedom and liberty rang hollow once Americans were no longer up against an oppressive British Empire. These cries began to sound hypocritical—if they did not seem so already—as the institution of slavery became a mainstay of the economy of the fledgling nation.[xviii] How could colonists extol freedom, liberty, and equality yet enslave masses of people? This American philosophical “inconsistency pinched harder when slaves began to speak the language of natural rights.”[xix] As Samuel Johnson, the eminent British Tory and man of letters, quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”[xx]

 

NOTES

[i] “The American Revolution, as it ran its course from 1764 to 1776—from the first beginnings of resistance down to the Declaration of Independence and the creation of new colonial constitutions—was inspired by the doctrines of Natural Law.” Ernest Baker, in Natural Law and the Theory of Society: 1500-1800, ed. Otto Gierke (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1934) at I, xlvi. See generally Clarence Manion, “The Natural Law Philosophy of the Founding Fathers,” University of Notre Dame Natural Law Institute Proceedings (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1949). See also Raymond Whiting, “The American Interpretation of Natural Law,” A Natural Right to Die: Twenty-Three Centuries of Debate (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002) 109-118.

[ii] “[T]he argument of the Declaration is a subtle, if ambiguous, blending of empirical historical analysis and the metaphysics of Natural Law. To prove its central contention—that the revolution was made necessary by British policies—the document enumerates twenty-seven specific events in recent history which reveal precisely how Britain acted to establish despotism. […] But the revolutionaries meant to transcend arguments of expediency, for such arguments were always subject to the vicissitudes of opinion and opinion might lead one to conclude that a revolution was in fact unnecessary and therefore unjustifiable. To remove their claims from the arena of opinion and to ground them with certainty, the revolutionaries felt constrained to found the argument for justification on the principle of Natural Rights which was rooted in the theory of Natural Law as applied to politics and society. Thus the grievances enumerated in the Declaration, weighty in themselves for some readers, were for others concrete examples of how one nation attempted to subordinate another to an ‘absolute despotism.’ The grievances, taken together, demonstrated that British policies had violated the fundamental principles of Natural Law itself.” Lester H. Cohen, “The American Revolution and Natural Law Theory,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1978) at 491-92.

[iii] See generally Allen Mendenhall, “Jefferson’s ‘Laws of Nature’: Newtonian Influence and the Dual Valence of Jurisprudence and Science,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2010).

[iv] See generally Mendenhall, “Jefferson’s Laws of Nature.”

[v] See generally David Lieberman, “Mapping criminal law: Blackstone and the categories of English jurisprudence,” in Law, Crime and English Society, 1660-1830, ed. Norma Landau(Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002 ) at 159-162. See also David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 343-385. Davis explains this English phenomenon as follows: “In England there was no ‘fundamental shift in values’ that mobilized the society into revolution. There was no counterpart to the American need for self-justification. No new hopes or obligations arose from an attempt to build a virtuous republic. Such phrases as ‘created equal,’ ‘inalienable rights,’ and ‘the pursuit of happiness’—all of which appeared in classic liberal texts—were qualified by a reverent constitutionalism that looked to Saxon precedent to legitimize ideals of freedom. The notion of man’s inherent rights, when assimilated to the historical concept of British ‘liberty,’ implied little challenge to traditional laws and authorities. And by the 1790s the very idea of inherent rights was giving way to radical and conservative forms Utilitarianism.” Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution at 343.

[vi] In short, Blackstone believed that the common law reflected natural law principles and that any law contradicting natural law was invalid. Consider, e.g., the following quotation: “This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding all over the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original. […] Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.” Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I at 41-42.

[vii] See Russell Kirk, America’s British Culture (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1993) 36-40.

[viii] See Albert W. Alschuler, “Rediscovering Blackstone,” 145 University of Pennsylvania L. Rev. (1996) at 4-19. See also David Schultz, “Political Theory and Legal History: Conflicting Depictions of Property in the American Political Founding,” 37 American Journal of Legal History (1993) at 483-486.

[ix] The jurisprudential split between Blackstone and Bentham, while stark, was not as hostile as some first considered: “Until recently Bentham’s claim to have made a sharp break with Blackstone has won wide acceptance, and that fact, combined with Bentham’s ascendancy, was chiefly responsible for consigning Blackstone to obscurity. […] No doubt this outcome resulted in part from Bentham’s mastery of invective, and in part from the fact that the elderly Blackstone did not deign to notice the attacks of an upstart critic, much less reply to them. Even the strongest partisans of Bentham have conceded that much of his criticism directed at Blackstone was misplaced[…]. In spite of Bentham’s efforts, most historians of the relationship have acknowledged that Bentham, despite his implacable hostility, combined relentless criticism with passages of praise that became as famous as some of his barbs.” Richard A. Cosgrove, Scholars of the Law: English Jurisprudence from Blackstone to Hart (New York University Press, 1996) at 52.

[x] See generally George W. Casey, “Natural Rights, Equality, and the Declaration of Independence,” 3 Ave Maria Law Review 45 (2005). See also Philip A. Hamburger, “Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions,” 102 Yale Law Journal 907 (1993). See also James Lanshe, “Morality and the Rule of Law in American Jurisprudence,” 11 Rutgers Journal of Law & Religion 1 (2009) at 11-15. See also Kevin F. Ryan, “We Hold These Truths,” 31-WTR Vermont Bar Journal 9 (2005-06) at 11-16.

[xi] “[Blackstone] presented law as a science, a ‘rational science,’ that included an extensive discussion of natural law. To Blackstone, the principles of natural law are universal and superior to positive law, including the common law. […] Natural law, according to Blackstone, is either revealed by God or discoverable through human reason. […] American jurisprudents readily accepted Blackstone’s natural law orientation. […] [N]atural law provided a convenient and useful justification for the adoption of English common law in the various states of the burgeoning nation. Especially in the decades following soon after the Revolutionary War, if the common law had been understood merely as an English institution distinctive to Britain itself, then an American reliance on the common law would have seemed impolitic or even treasonous. If, however, the common law arose from universal principles of the law of nature, which were revealed by God or discovered through human reason, then the common law would be legitimate everywhere, including in America.” Stephen M. Feldman, “From Premodern to Modern American Jurisprudence: The Onset of Positivism,” 50 Vanderbilt Law Review 1387 (1997) at 1396-97.

[xii] Thomas R. R. Cobb, a jurist from Georgia and an expert on slave laws, took pains to show how science validated the idea of slaves as naturally inferior and in need of white supervision. Consider this quote by Cobb: “The history of the negro race then confirms the conclusion to which an inquiry into the negro character had brought us: that a state of bondage, so far from doing violence to the law of his nature, develops and perfects it; and that, in that state, he enjoys the greatest amount of happiness, and arrives at the greatest degree of perfection of which his nature is capable. And, consequently, that negro slaver, as it exists in the United States, is not contrary to the law of nature.” Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America (Philadelphia: T. & J. W. Johnson & Co., 1858) at 51.

[xiii] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) at 403.

[xiv] Ibid. at 403-404.

[xv] “Southerners considered themselves law-abiding and considered northerners lawless. After all, southerners did not assert higher-law doctrines and broad interpretations of the Constitution. Rather, as Charles S. Sydnor has argued, they understood the law in a much different way and professed to see no contradiction between their code of honor, with its appeal to extralegal personal force, and a respect for the law itself.” Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974) at 44.

[xvi] See Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009) at 405-408.

[xvii] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 470.

[xviii] See generally David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966) at 3-28. For a synthesis of the historical scholarship on this point, see Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993) at 63-92.

[xix] David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975) at 276.

[xx] See James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (New York: George Dearborn, 1833) at 132.

BOOK REVIEW: Laura F. Edwards. The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

In Advocacy, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Civil Procedure, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Laws of Slavery, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Slavery, Southern History, The South on September 28, 2011 at 10:41 am

Allen Mendenhall

Since Mark Tushnet revived the study of slave laws in the American South, several historians, most notably Paul Finkelman, Thomas D. Morris, and Ariela Gross, have followed in his footsteps.  Laura F. Edwards’s The People and Their Peace is a book that extends this trend in scholarship.  Focusing on North and South Carolina from roughly 1787 to 1840, and more specifically on three North Carolina counties and four South Carolina counties during that time, Edwards situates local law in contradistinction to state law, portraying the former as polycentric and heterogeneous and the latter as centralized and homogenous.  Edwards suggests that state law was more aspirational than practical in the early nineteenth-century Carolinas because it failed to inform ordinary legal practice at the local level in the same way that resident culture or custom did.

Pitting “reformers” (elite individuals who sought to create a uniform and consolidated body of rules that appellate courts could enforce at the state level) against locals, Edwards demonstrates that the legal system was bottom-up and not top-down and that law on paper or in statutes was different from law in practice.  On paper or in statutes, law subordinated lower courts to appellate courts and seemed, in keeping with the reformers’ ideals, systematized into a unitary, integrated order that reflected the supposedly natural and inevitable unfolding of history.  Reformers selectively compiled local laws and practices into lengthy works to forge the impression that law was a set of consistent, underlying principles.  In practice, however, law was variable, contingent, and contextual.  It emerged from the workaday and quotidian operations of individuals in towns and communities.  Law was therefore as messy as it was unpredictable, and it cannot be understood today without a deep knowledge of interpersonal relationships and cultural conditions in locales where courts sat.  Slave codes, for instance, did not reflect realities on the ground because they were handed down by state legislatures and could not account for the reputations and routines of people in local communities—people who cared less about consistency in the law or about fixed principles than about their personal stake in any given legal matter. 

This book is a corrective to histories interested principally in local legal sources but neglectful of the particularities that brought about these local sources.  It marshals evidence from legal documents—especially case decisions, including appellate opinions—while considering why and how those documents were produced.  The development of state law became increasingly important during the antebellum years, but the rise in state law—which privileged narratives of individual rights, standardized legal principles, and enabled southern distinctiveness—does not make sense apart from local data.  Local data reveals much about the processes (as opposed to philosophies) of law.  Put differently, local law remained discretionary because it was fluid and not subject to abstract and purely notional mantras about rights. Read the rest of this entry »

Nicole N. Aljoe on Legal Discourse and Testimony in Early West Indian Slave Narratives

In Advocacy, American History, Arts & Letters, Civil Procedure, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Laws of Slavery, Literary Theory & Criticism, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Slavery, The West Indies on July 5, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Nicole N. Aljoe has published an intriguing article in Volume 46 (issue no. 2) of Early American Literature (2011), which is published by the University of North Carolina Press.  The article is titled “‘Going to Law’: Legal Discourse and Testimony in Early West Indian Slave Narratives.”  It is available here on Project Muse.  The abstract is below:

Despite the fact that the courts had not proven consistently helpful in their quests for freedom, British West Indian slaves frequently consulted them in order to invoke the rule of law and pursue their rights. Several Caribbean historians have documented the ways in which slaves in the West Indies participated in formal legal arenas almost from the initial days of colonization and claimed the courts as one of their own forums for resolving disputes and asserting those few rights written into the various parliamentary acts intended to ameliorate the conditions of the enslaved and passed in England and its Caribbean colonies from 1788 onward. Indeed, slaves in the West Indies participated in the courts systems as plaintiffs as well as defendants more frequently than previously thought. And although the courts were certainly used by those in power to oppress slaves, women, children, and the poor, as well as to “legitimate [the] blatantly repressive regime” of slavery, they nevertheless provided a forum for those who did not write the laws in question to use the courts to ensure the legal protection of their “natural rights” (Lazarus-Black, “John Grant’s” 154). Thus, in another of the seemingly endless paradoxes inherent to the British imperial slave system, slaves—objects of property, yet human subjects—could, in certain situations, use the courts in the West Indies and in England on their own behalf, as legal agents to affirm their status as legal subjects deserving of the law’s unbiased protection, and judgment.

Outline and Summary of David F. Ericson’s The Debate Over Slavery (New York University Press, 2000)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, History, Humanities, Laws of Slavery, Liberalism, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Slavery on June 7, 2011 at 10:44 am

Allen Mendenhall

Ericson, David F.  The Debate Over Slavery:  Antislavery and Proslavery Liberalism in Antebellum America.  New York:  New York University Press, 2000.

 “The slavery issue in the antebellum United States was defined centrally by the failure of a people to bear witness to its own liberal principles” (90).

Chapter One

Rhetoric matters, and this book is about the anti- and pro- slavery rhetoric during the antebellum period.  Ericson argues that rhetoric separated a nation that was not so “divided against itself” as people assume.  Both anti- and pro-slavery rhetoric appealed to “liberalism,” according to Ericson, and thus the overall discourse at that time, in this country, under those circumstances, smacked of “liberty” and “equality”: concepts rooted in the mores of Christianity, Republicanism, and discursive pluralism.  Today we might lump these concepts into classical liberalism or neo-liberalism, but Ericson suggests that we should not lump concepts the way “consensus scholars” do; rather, he suggests that we accept that liberalism, in all its manifestations, is a complex and multifarious tradition inherited and adapted in many ways and for many purposes.  He endorses the approach of “multiple-traditions” scholars that reveals how advocates on both sides of the slavery debate attempted to conform their arguments to the tradition of liberalism.

Chapter Two

Ericson spells out liberalism and distinguishes it from “non-liberal” thought:  “I define liberal ideas as a general set of ideas that appeal to personal freedom, equal worth, government by consent, and private ownership of property as core human values.  Conversely, nonliberal ideas appeal to some notion of natural inequality based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or birthright that denies those liberal values to significant numbers of human beings” (14).  The proslavery liberal logic went as follows: “The institution was a just institution because slavery was the status in which African Americans could enjoy the most practical liberty in light of their present circumstances, which rendered them incapable of prospering as free men alongside European Americans” (14-15).  The antislavery liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied that African Americans were men with a birthright to freedom equal to that of European Americans” (14).  The antislavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The Southern institution of racial slavery was an unjust institution because it effectively denied African Americans the opportunity to work, worship, and learn at the feet of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15).  The proslavery non-liberal logic went as follows:  “The institution was a just institution because African Americans constituted an inferior race consigned by nature or God to be the slaves of a superior white/Anglo-Saxon/Protestant race” (15).  Read the rest of this entry »

The Place of Miscegenation Laws within Historical Scholarship about Slavery

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communication, Economics, History, Law, Laws of Slavery, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Slavery, The Literary Table, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization on May 17, 2011 at 8:28 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post appeared at The Literary Table.

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Miscegenation laws, also known as anti-miscegenation laws, increasingly have attracted the attention of scholars of slavery over the last half-century.  Scholarship on slavery first achieved eminence with the publication of such texts as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen (1946), Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), and Leon F. Litwack’s North of Slavery (1961).  When Winthrop D. Jordan published his landmark study White Over Black in 1968, miscegenation statutes during the era of American slavery were just beginning to fall within historians’ critical purview.  The Loving v. Virginia case, initiated in 1959 and resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, no doubt played an important role in activating scholarship on this issue, especially in light of the Civil Rights movement that called attention to various areas of understudied black history. 

In Loving, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s miscegenation statutes forbidding marriage between whites and non-whites and ruled that the racial classifications of the statutes restricted the freedom to marry and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In the wake of Loving, scholarship on miscegenation laws gained traction, although miscegenation laws during the era of American slavery have yet to receive extensive critical treatment.  Several articles and essays have considered miscegenation laws and interracial sex during the era of American slavery, but only a few book-length analyses are devoted to these issues, and of these analyses, most deal with interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the nineteenth-century antebellum period, or from the period of Reconstruction up through the twentieth-century.  This historiographical essay explores interracial sex and miscegenation laws in the corpus of historical writing about slavery.  It does so by contextualizing interracial sex and miscegenation laws within broader trends in the study of slavery.  Placing various historical texts in conversation with one another, this essay speculates about how and why, over time, historians treated interracial sex and miscegenation laws differently and with varying degrees of detail.  By no means exhaustive, this essay merely seeks to point out one area of slavery studies that stands for notice, interrogation, and reconsideration.  The colonies did not always have miscegenation laws; indeed, miscegenation laws did not spring up in America until the late seventeenth-century, and they remained in effect in various times and regions until just forty-four years ago.  The longevity and severity of these laws make them worthy our continued attention, for to understand miscegenation laws is to understand more fully the logic and formal expression of racism. Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Jurisprudence, Law, Laws of Slavery, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Slavery, Western Civilization on April 20, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Introduction

The introduction serves as a brief historiographical essay that situates Morris’s text alongside other prominent texts and authors in the field.  Morris uses the introduction to familiarize readers with, among other things, the differences between common law and courts of equity, the differences between civil and criminal law, and other relevant information such as the fact that statutes in England and America are mostly products of the nineteenth century.  Morris believes that slavery reinforced English racism in that the English were predisposed to view Africans as inferior and so used the law to categorize racial difference and justify slave property.  Morris suggests that experts can skip most of his introduction probably because the introduction is, as I have suggested, a piece about historiography rather than a history in itself. 

PART ONE

Sources: Racial and Legal

Chapter One: The Function of Race in Southern Slave Law

Popular science maintained that blacks were inferior, and this understanding was reflected in law.  Indians were not enslaved as often or in the same numbers as blacks.  The presumptions and definitions of “slave” had to do with blackness; therefore, the legal status of mulattoes was often in flux.  Law had to define people by race and then determine their free or slave status afterwards.  Several Southern states adopted laws allowing free blacks to sell themselves as slaves.

Chapter Two: The Sources of Southern Slave Law

Some Southern slave law derived from Roman law; some derived from English common law.  The origins of Southern slave law are traceable to at least Virginia.  The degree to which Virginia followed or revised the common law is debatable.  In early Virginia, many blacks were treated as indentured servants, not slaves.  Not until the mid-seventeenth century did blacks become routinely associated with slavery.  There is little evidence to suggest that Virginians had a sophisticated understanding of ancient Roman or other European legal traditions.  A child’s status as free or slave followed the mother under the judicial principle of partus sequitur ventrem.  The traditional common law rule was that the child’s status followed the father.  Some appellate courts tried to link their opinions to the precedents of civil law or the Roman law on slavery.  Some judges analogized slavery to English villenage.  The roots of slavery in Hebraic tradition and Biblical literature had an enormous influence among nineteenth-century Southern whites. Read the rest of this entry »

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