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Posts Tagged ‘Miscegenation Laws’

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

Allen 2

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 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 »

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