See Disclaimer Below.

Posts Tagged ‘American History’

Law in Melville and Hawthorne

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Writing on July 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Law was a common trope in the writing of nineteenth century American authors.  The jurist Roscoe Pound referred to nineteenth century America as a “frontier society” that was struggling to define what law was.  Justice John Marshall was carving out the jurisdiction of the nation’s high court, even as Andrew Jackson challenged Marshall’s authority to do so.  (Jackson supposedly said, in regard to Worcester v. Georgia, that Marshall had made his decision, “now let him enforce it.”)  American jurisprudents were seeking to reconcile the contradictions between liberty and equality on the one hand—the ideals of the revolutionary generation—with the peculiar institution of slavery on the other.  The ethos of republicanism and the ideal of open discourse clashed with the legislative attempts among the Southern states to resurrect Roman code to validate slave laws, even as the judiciary, on all levels and in all states, attempted to incorporate British common law into a new setting with unique problems.  In short, law was in flux during the nineteenth century in America, and writers like Melville and Hawthorne picked up on this problem and gave it unique and sometimes troubling articulation in their literature.

The “facts” in Benito Cereno are strikingly similar to the facts in one of America’s most memorable cases: U.S. v. The Amistad, in which John Quincy Adams, among others, served as an attorney.  In both “cases,” slaves took over a slave ship, killed some of their white captives, and demanded that the remaining white shipmen return the boat to Africa.  Rather than doing that, however, the white shipmen steered a path toward America, where the unsuspecting crew of another ship, sensing something wrong, came to assist.  These fact patterns raise sensitive and disturbing questions about the law.  What is justice?  How should it be determined?  Which party is right, and what does it mean to be right or to have rights?  For that matter, what is the law to begin with?

In Benito Cereno, Cereno is the captain of the ship bearing slaves, and it is from Delano’s perspective that we learn, gradually, that a slave revolt has occurred and that Cereno is being held captive by Africans.  Delano is the captain of a different ship who has come aboard Cereno’s ship to assist Cereno’s apparently distressed crew.  The leader of the slave revolt, Babo, himself a slave, is always by Cereno’s side, thereby giving Delano the impression that Cereno has a loyal servant.  What Delano eventually discovers is that the slaves have spared the lives of only Cereno and a few other whites in order that these whites return the ship to Africa.

In Amistad as in Benito Cereno, the African slaves had been removed from their homeland, without their consent, and taken to a foreign land among alien peoples for the sole purpose of perpetual enslavement.  On the other hand, the white shipmen had, it could be argued, complied with the law of the sea in conducting these actions, and they were murdered by mutinying slaves.  The problem here is that neither side seems to represent an unquestionably moral or obviously right position.  Slavery is evil, but so is murder.  Melville, perhaps realizing the literary possibilities created by this tension, subjects this challenging set of circumstances to rigorous interrogation by way of a captivating narrative. Read the rest of this entry »


Additional Thoughts on Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Historicism, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery, Southern History, The South, Western Civilization on December 23, 2011 at 10:50 am

Allen Mendenhall

Recently I reviewed Gary W. Gallagher’s The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011) for The University Bookman.  The review (“Why the Union Soldiers Fought”) is available here.  I have not said all I mean to say about Gallagher’s book, so this post records some additional thoughts.

I began my review with the tale of the “Lost Women and Children of Roswell.”  It was difficult as a child, knowing this story and others like it, to view the Union Army as completely righteous and pure, or to justify the eradication of certain evils like slavery with other widespread and destructive evils like war.  Despite being a Southerner with ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, I’m ambivalent about the War because of the various and totalizing perspectives that were thrust upon me when I was young, and because of my general opposition to war and nationalism, to say nothing of the complex figuring of race that played a defining role in bringing about the conflict.

As I went from middle school to high school, and then college to graduate school, the less likely I was to reduce the causes of the War to one or two factors, and the more likely I was to believe that anyone’s view of the War is already tainted by biases and assumptions.  Over time, I learned never to rule out alternate ways of viewing the War or the Confederacy.  I decided that no one would ever discover the intellectual trump card that would prevail over other viewpoints about the War that killed more men than all other wars in American history, combined.

There’s always more than one way of looking at a conflict, be it this War or some other one.  And our imperfect understanding of conflicts—of anything, really—always consists of generalizations based on the confines of personal experience.  We can read about the events encompassing the War, and we can guess at the logic and beliefs that explain those events.  But we can never relive the War or experience it in real time; and if we are honest, we must say that we can never read all there is to read about the period, never fully know the way a nineteenth-century mind thought, never entirely understand the quotidian realities of the men and women of all races at those times and in those places.  Being human, moreover, we make mistakes and assumptions.  Most of us revise our errors when we notice them.  But some don’t.  Some try to rationalize the logic of the unrealities to which they cling.  Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Outline and Summary of Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Slavery on April 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Allen Mendenhall


The focus of this book is on nineteenth-century New Orleans and the slave market that emerged then and there.  More than other workings of slavery, slave markets reduced humans to commodities with prices.  In particular, this book is interested in the story of slave showrooms, which held up to 100 slaves and where appraisals, accountings, back-room dealings, and other activities took place.  The book attributes the slave trade to mercantilism whereby colonial imports serviced and stocked metropolitan centers and generated profits secured for both state-sponsored companies and the monopoly-granting state itself.  Companies with well-connected leaders and government ties could gain state privileges and favors and receive special monopoly licenses to dominate trade, first in goods such as tobacco, indigo, rice, cotton, coffee, and so on, and later in human beings.  The ban of the international slave trade in 1808 did not lead to the reduction or softening of slavery, but rather to new shapes and manifestations of slavery, especially as slave populations moved increasingly from the upper to the lower South.  The ban led, more importantly for the purposes of this book, to the domestic slave trade.  The domestic slave trade intensified during the rise of the cotton kingdom.  The price of slaves changed with the price of cotton until the 1850s.  Read the rest of this entry »

Law Professors and Laws of Slavery

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Slavery, The Literary Table, Western Civilization on April 4, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post was first published over at The Literary Table.  I have reposted here because the content of the post relates to many recent posts on this site.

Kenneth Stamp published his landmark study The Peculiar Institution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) in 1956, thus inaugurating the institutionalized and concerted efforts of scholars to examine the history of slavery in America with greater detail.  Research and study of the history of slavery then gained momentum in the 1960s.  One of the seminal texts from this period was David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University Press, 1966), winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  An ambitious undertaking, this book seeks to demonstrate the continuity of slavery through various times and places in Western Civilization.  A legitimizing narrative or logic always accompanies the institution of slavery, Davis suggests, but such narrative or logic—or narrative logic—is fraught with paradoxes threatening to undermine the institution altogether.  How, for instance, does one reconcile the ideals of freedom and equality, so celebrated by American Revolutionaries, with the pervasive reality of human bondage?  How does one make sense of a Christianity that both condemns and justifies slavery?  How can slaves be humans—rational agents with free will—and chattel property at once?  How does ending the slave trade worsen conditions for the enslaved?  If enslaving infidels, and only infidels, is valid by law and church teaching, then how do European colonists validate the enslavement of converted Africans?  How can colonists rely heavily upon an institution that they fear?  How can one of the earliest American colonies to oppose slavery (Georgia) become a hotbed for slavery?  If, according to law and church teaching, only pagans can be enslaved, why are not Natives enslaved as frequently or as much as Africans?  For that matter, why do early objections to slavery focus on Natives, who are less likely to become slaves than blacks?  Why do colonists insist on Christianizing slaves yet fear converted slaves?  How does the antislavery movement develop out of the very ideology sustaining slavery?  How do notions of sin both justify and subvert the institution of slavery?  Why does the Age of Enlightenment, with its celebration of reason, humanism, and liberation, intensify rather than disparage slavery?  And how can the New World, a putatively progressive landscape, rely on and perpetuate an ancient institution?  These and other questions permeate Davis’s provocative text.  Davis does not try to resolve these apparent contradictions so much as he explores them through various persons, places, and patterns; in so doing, he describes how human bondage gets revised and extended from one age to the next, and how justifications for slavery in one era inaugurate justifications for slavery in later eras.  Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of Diana Ramey Berry’s Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Georgia, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on March 28, 2011 at 8:17 am

Allen Mendenhall

Book Theses

Quotation: Swing the Sickle seeks to break down binary opposites such as house labor equals skilled work and field labor equals unskilled work to explore more subtle dynamics that involve skill, talent, seniority, experience, personal relationships, and circumstance.  Building on recent scholarship on various aspects of slave labor from organizational structures to occupational hierarchies, this book examines the intricacies of enslaved labor, family, community, and economy.” (2)

Quotation: Swing the Sickle explores the ways different crops created a social hierarchy among the enslaved and the effect of such power dynamics within the quarters.” (3)


Southern planters generally divided labor by skill, not by sex.  Specialized labor crossed gender lines.  This book explores this fact while paying attention to the quotidian operations of enslaved persons and slaveholders in Georgia.  What constituted skilled labor differed from plantation to plantation and crop to crop.  Labor itself defined slave life and community.  For that reason, the author uses the term “working social” to refer to “public work environments where bondpeople labored to complete a task and used the balance of the evening for socializing” (3).  Examining working socials gives us insights into the private lives of slaves.  Slavery was not just about producing for masters; it was also a way of life.  Although labor was always connected to the public world of commerce, agriculture, and politics, it was first a private, family, familial, and familiar institution in which slaves were subject to exploitation.  This book focuses on two regions of Georgia: the upcountry and piedmont county of Wilkes, and the lowcountry and tidewater county of Glynn.  These counties are representative of the general development of open and closed systems of slavery.  Glynn County was marked by large plantation settings, and Wilkes County by farms and smaller slave-holding units. 

Quotation: “[S]tudying gender allows us to identify the numerous ways bondspeople experienced slavery in addition to regional variance. […] We cannot understand slavery until we know more about the work that men and women performed.” (8)       Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: