Local Matters: Race, Crime, and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century South

Local Matters: Race, Crime, and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century South

Local Matters: Race, Crime, and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century South

Local Matters: Race, Crime, and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century South


Much of the current reassessment of race, culture, and criminal justice in the nineteenth-century South has been based on intensive community studies. Drawing on previously untapped sources, the nine original papers collected here represent some of the best new work on how racial justice can be shaped by the particulars of time and place.

Although each essay is anchored in the local, several important larger themes emerge across the volume--such as the importance of personality and place, the movement of former slaves from the capriciousness of "plantation justice" to the (theoretically) more evenhanded processes of the courts, and the increased presence of government in daily aspects of American life.

Local Matters cites a wide range of examples to support these themes. One essay considers the case of a quasi-free slave in Natchez, Mississippi--himself a slaveowner--who was "reined in" by his master through the courts, while another shows how federal aims were subverted during trials held in the aftermath of the 1876 race riots in Ellenton, South Carolina. Other topics covered include the fear of black criminality as a motivation of Klan activity; the career of Thomas Ruffin, slaveowner and North Carolina Supreme Court Justice; blacks and the ballot in Washington County, Texas; the overturned murder conviction of a North Carolina slave who had killed a white man; the formation of a powerful white bloc in Vicksburg, Mississippi; agitation by black and white North Carolina women for greater protections from abusive white male elites; and slaves, crime, and the common law in New Orleans.

Together, these studies offer new insights into the nature of law and the fate of due process at different stages of a highly racialized society.


Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French observer of American life, viewed law and constitutionalism as central to democracy’s success in the United States. De Tocqueville noted that Americans saw virtually every political issue as a legal question, using judicial ideas and language to express their thinking. He took hope from this phenomenon, believing that lawyers, by the very tenacity with which they valued order and guarded established procedures, restrained the force of popular opinion and mitigated the tyranny of the majority. But was de Tocqueville correct? How effective were lawyers and the rule of law in quieting majoritarian tyranny and guaranteeing justice? Perhaps the best test of de Tocqueville’s analysis is criminal law and its application. As in the twentieth century, those accused of crime were generally marginal persons who had transgressed community norms—often in ways that outraged the community. in the face of an aroused public opinion, only judges, lawyers, and the rule of law stood in the way of arbitrary violence perpetrated by the community against those charged with crimes.

This book examines crime, justice, and community in the nineteenthcentury American South, a region better known for honor and vigilantism than the rule of law. Bringing together new research by nine social historians of the law, it explores how effectively law mitigated tyranny in the face of the greatest threat to American democracy—slavery and racism. Each of the contributors takes a local perspective, addressing these broader issues from the vantage point of one county, community, or (in one case) individual. This approach allows the authors to explore rich but hard-to-use local records that illuminate the day-to-day operation of the law and its social and political context and consequences.

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