Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law-An American History

By Bardaglio, Peter W. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law-An American History


Bardaglio, Peter W., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law-An American History * Peter Wallenstein * New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002 * xii, 305 pp. * $35.00

The current debate over same-sex marriages reminds us that who one can and cannot marry has long been a crucial dimension of the struggle for civil rights. Peter Wallenstein's spirited and incisive narrative is a must for anyone who would like to know more about the history of marriage equality in the United States.

In reconstructing the rise and fall of legal prohibitions against interracial marriages, Tell the Court reveals the centrality of these laws to American ideas about race and freedom. Beginning in the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth century, what Wallenstein terms "the antimiscegenation regime" grew in power, spreading north, south, and west. As late as 1948, thirty states banned interracial marriages. Not until the U.S. Supreme Court declared miscegenation laws unconstitutional in its 1967 decision, Loving v. Virginia, did the three-hundred-year-old regime come to an end.

Racial identity, interstate comity, and the inheritance of property all emerged as significant questions in the enforcement of miscegenation laws. Wallenstein's study seeks to place analysis of these legal issues in their broader social and cultural context. By exploring the complex interplay of "power imposed" and "power resisted" (p. 4), he provides a sophisticated and nuanced view of the connections between family and state. We come not only to understand the pain and suffering that interracial marital prohibitions inflicted but also the dignity, caring, and courage of those who encountered these barriers. In the end, though, Tell the Courtes primarily legal rather than social and cultural history.

Wallenstein marches briskly through the first two hundred years of miscegenation laws, covering this period in only fifty-two pages. Noting that slaves could not enter into legal marriage, Wallenstein argues that interracial marriage "was not a particularly compelling concern" in the South before the Civil War and that anxiety about this issue was "at least as powerful" in the western territories (p. 42). Because miscegenation laws and racial definitions varied from state to state and changed over time, interracial couples and their children found themselves in constant peril. …

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