Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Slave Laws in Virginia

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Slave Laws in Virginia

Article excerpt

Slave Laws in Virginia. By Philip J. Schwarz. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2010, Pp. xi, 253. $24.95.)

Philip J. Schwarz's slim volume aims to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Examining the shifting cultural space between statutory and customary laws on slavery in Virginia, Schwarz ambitiously tackles the social, cultural, and political variances between the law decreed and the lex populi. Viewing law as cultural performance, Schwarz has limited interest in dusty statutes. Rather, he is fundamentally interested in the ways in which slave laws were mediated, changed, and adapted to meet Virginians' desires to preserve the peculiar institution. At the same time, Schwarz attempts to gauge slaves' contributions to, and understandings of, slave law.

If carried to its full fruition, Schwarz's ingenious idea would fill multiple volumes. Virginia, after all, has a juridical relationship with race stretching nearly four centuries. At a mere 1 56 pages, however, Schwarz's treatment of his subject is woefully inadequate. Appearing impressionistic, Schwarz's minimal evidence fails to adequately satisfy his sweeping claims. His evidence for a cultural disconnect between statuary and customary law hinges on a handful of nineteenth century case studies. Conversely, his largely speculative evidence of African understandings of slave law are rooted in eighteenth-century (and earlier) West African juridical practice. The result is a book whose ingenious line of argument far outpaces its evidence.

Despite its shortcomings, the book features fascinating examples illustrative of Virginians' cultural navigation between the letter and spirit of the law. For example, Virginia's legal system actively used the threat of capital punishment to support the continuation of slavery, nevertheless, Virginia judges, at least after 1800, were increasingly known for clemency. …

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