DEPRIVING A WHOLE RACE
EVEN BEFORE the growth of state power and the development of new institutions, American voters relied on public authority to shape their social system. Much of antebellum intervention in social relations simply perpetuated traditional patterns of regulating the status of various groups of residents. The criteria for intervention in these traditional ways were not physical handicaps or social behavior but sex and, above all, race.
Speaking for the Georgia Supreme Court in 1857, Justice Henry L. Benning cataloged types of laws that Georgia's legislature could enact -- had, in fact, already enacted -- limiting the rights of white women, blacks, and convicted criminals. The state enjoyed virtually unlimited power, Benning declared, to enact a law "for the creation, or the destruction, of any right" so long as the legislators deemed such laws to be for "the good of the State." On Georgia's statute books were laws "depriving married women of liberty and of the right of property" and "depriving all women of political rights"; laws "depriving men of property, of liberty, of life, for crime"; and laws "depriving a whole race, of every right, except the right to life." Georgians subjected to these laws derived no benefits aside from "good done to the public."1 Before the Civil War and Reconstruction, neither state nor federal constitution limited Georgia's authority to enact and enforce all such laws.
In defining the highly variable rights and responsibilities of nineteenth-century Americans, public authorities formulated strikingly different social policies for various groups. Paternalism, rather than liberty, provides the key to understanding the social experience of most antebellum Georgians. Liberty in the competitive, anomic world of late antebellum Georgia, as elsewhere in America, was generally reserved for white men. Only they, the perception went (and the justification), could absorb the stresses of life in a world of social insecurity -- the burdens of responsibility for success or failure in a disorderly society, absence of unemployment insurance in a market economy, vanishing fixity of status and place.
Paternalistic policies governed white women and children, slaves, and Indians. Paternalism connotes coercion as well as protection, power as well as