Laws of the deep South

The Bondsman's Burden
January 15, 1999

Slightly more than 70 years ago Helen Catterall collected and published hundreds of judicial cases, both civil and criminal, concerned with various aspects of slavery and race relations in the Southern United States.

Catterall's data, which have been added to since her work was first published, comprise an immensely rich body of evidence that continues to be mined by many students of the South's "peculiar institution".

Yet, as Jenny Bourne Wahl points out, perhaps because of their penchant for evidence that can be readily quantified, economists and economic historians have generally failed to appreciate the full significance of the public laws of slavery and their judicial interpretation for the definition and often complex functioning of the antebellum Southern economies.

By training as economist rather than a legal historian, Wahl has more than compensated for the omissions and oversights of her predecessors. The crux of her subtle and generally persuasive argument is that the Southern judiciary was faced with a whole variety of cases that forced them to acknowledge, however reluctantly, the humanity of those whom law-makers had cast in the role of chattels.

Those cases, which Wahl deals with in fascinating detail, ranged from disputes over the sale and hiring out of enslaved people to their treatment by "strangers". The disposition of these law-suits, Wahl argues, produced a set of "efficient legal" rules that, by balancing the property rights of slave owners against the interests of society as a whole, helped ensure both the smoother running and the continuance of the institution of slavery. Significantly, and perhaps reflecting their capital value just as much as judicial acknowledgements of their humanity, enslaved people could be important beneficiaries of the decisions handed down by Southern courts.

In terms of its innovative methodology and findings, Wahl's study, which is intended for a specialist rather than a general audience, ranks as a significant contribution to the field. She guides her readers skilfully through the complexities of Southern law and presents her case in a most eloquent and dispassionate manner.

Wahl's only serious error of judgement is in the title of her book and the jacket illustration. Given the thrust of her argument concerning the judicially acknowledged humanity of enslaved people, Wahl makes a compelling case for referring to enslaved African-Americans as bondspeople, although it must be said that in her text she favours the alternative terminology of "slave" or "slaves".

Even assuming that the common law of slavery was gender blind, it is difficult to justify the incorporation of the term "Bondsman" into the title of her study and an illustration that depicts three men.

African-American women, as well as African-American men, were both the victims and, if Wahl is to be believed, the beneficiaries of the decisions reached by the antebellum South's white male judiciary.

Betty Wood is a lecturer in history, University of Cambridge.

The Bondsman's Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery

Author - Jenny Bourne Wahl
ISBN - 0 521 59239
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 7

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