Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Imagining State and Federal Law in Pauline E. Hopkins's Contending Forces

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Imagining State and Federal Law in Pauline E. Hopkins's Contending Forces

Article excerpt

Boston University

Winner of the Best Paper Contest, 2009 SSAWW Conference, General Category

In the opening section of Pauline E. Hopkins's Contending Forces, set in the 179os, Charles Montfort, a wealthy white plantation owner who has recently moved to North Carolina from Bermuda to escape the imminent emancipation of his slaves, is shot dead. His wife is stripped and whipped, his wife and sons are transformed into slave property, and his mansion is looted by a mob and then burned. His estate, including his wife and children as well as his property and slaves, is then distributed among the whites who carried out the attack. The mob, organized as a committee on public safety, is led by Anson Pollock, a local aristocrat with sexual designs on Mrs. Montfort. Assisted by Bill Sampson and Hank Davis, Pollock incites the attack by spreading rumors that Montfort's slaves are planning an insurrection and that Montfort's known plan to free his slaves at some future time constitutes illicit encouragement of rebellion. Discussing the raid, Hopkins explains, "In those old days, if accused of aiding slaves in a revolt, a white man stood no more chance than a Negro accused of the same crime. He forfeited life and property. This power of the law Anson Pollock had invoked" (7o). She adds that to gain sexual access to Grace Montfort, Pollock had first accused her of having black blood, then arranged that "the two children and their mother fell to his lot ... as his portion of the spoils" (71). No legal process is described__no hearing with testimony to determine Grace's race, for instance. Instead, Hopkins gives us a world in which state law, rather than intervening to prevent mob violence, actively legitimates and is continuous with it. The public machinery of state law is an available instrument whites deploy to sate their private lusts, resentments, and greed. Local anti-insurrection laws, combined with state tolerance of mob action, provide corrupt individuals with legal cover for murder, whipping, rape, and theft, including the theft of persons as property__actions carried out with impunity against whites as well as blacks.

In the concluding section of the novel, set in Boston in the 189os, the heirs of the two Montfort sons recover a total of $250,000 in "damages" (376). Their lawsuit is brought on unspecified grounds against the US government and is heard privately by the US Supreme Court (376-84). That is, the federal government pays money to the heirs of individuals who suffered (as much as a hundred years earlier) physical violence, emotional damage, and the loss of valuable property under color of antebellum state law. While state law had enabled the injury, federal law provides a utopian pathway to healing it. Written in a time of heightened racial violence and widespread lynching, Contending Forces situates federal law as the key site for reparative justice for a range of injuries stemming from slavery. In Hopkins's imaginative vision, the federal government through its treasury and its court system closes the books on the nation's shameful past and opens the door to its principled future.

Although Hopkins calls her work a "little romance," she also insists that both the antebellum events and those contemporary with her "actually occurred" (13, 14). "Ample proof" can be found, she asserts, in the archives of the Newberne, North Carolina, courthouse "and at the national seat of government, Washington, D. C." (14). No evidence has been found of a closely parallel North Carolina case or of any federal case paying reparative damages for wrongs like these; yet several critics have accepted Hopkins's claims to historical accuracy, including her excellent biographer Lois Brown, who argues at length that the Montforts' story was the traumatic story of Hopkins's own great-grandparents (220-52).(1) Looking closely at the nineteenth-century historical and legal context, I argue that, far from recounting personal or even possible legal events, Hopkins carefully reinvents American law in her novel to serve her reparative vision. …

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