“It is obviously contrary to the law of nature, however it may be defined, for … a handful of people to gorge themselves on superfluities while the starving multitude lacks necessities.”
Aremarkable irony of the Civil War was that the states remained entities even more powerful than before their fight about secession. The destruction of plantation society meant, as Eric Foner insightfully argues, that the states had to assume new functions of social control. 1 The understanding of the times was that the emancipated slaves, no longer under the supervision of their masters, could not simply roam the countryside in search of work. They had to come under a new form of discipline. The only agency available to assume this new function of social control was the state governments.
Defining crimes and imposing punishments became the preferred mechanism of social control. The notion of crime had the advantage of stigmatizing ways of life that the white establishment found threatening. Imprisonment was a way of returning the emancipated slave to a status close to bonded servitude. Some of the laws enforced against the freed African Americans had been on the books for centuries, for example, those outlawing vagrancy and miscegenation. Vagrancy apparently had its origin in the fourteenth-century English legislation designed to control the poor and to prevent uprooted laborers from wandering from town to town. 2 The elastic definition of this offense gave the police wide