Of Human Chattel

Trial transcripts from Antebellum courtrooms yield surprising insights into the South’s “peculiar institution.”

Double Character:
Slavery and Mastery in the
Antebellum Southern Courtroom
by Ariela Gross
Princeton University Press, $39.50

ARIELA GROSS SOMETIMES wept as she read the age-yellowed documents detailing slavery-related courtroom battles waged by white defendants and plaintiffs in the Deep South. “There are so many of these little stories, so long forgotten and so heart-rending. I found it to be both very emotional and very humbling,” says Gross, an associate professor in the USC Law School who holds a Ph.D. in history.
In Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom, Gross traces the thousands of legal disputes that arose out of the buying, selling and hiring out of human beings as chattel.
“The book is about this double character of white racial ideology,” Gross says. “On one level, whites believed that slavery was the best condition for black people. But on another level, in everyday life, they quite unconsciously dealt with slaves on a very individual basis as people.”
Courtroom contests gave slaves a humanity they weren’t supposed to have, Gross argues. Plaintiffs seeking civil damages for injury to a slave, for example, would often contradict the stereotype of blacks as lazy, childlike and stupid, instead describing their human property as industrious, intelligent and trustworthy. And though slaves were barred from testifying in court, their testimony often entered the record as second-hand accounts repeated by white witnesses.
The book reveals as much about the European-American buyers and sellers as it does about the slaves. “Courtrooms were the fora not only for battles over a slave’s character, but for battles over the character of his master,” Gross says. For instance, legal disputes that hinged on whether an owner sold a slave who was a known runaway risk called into question the seller’s honesty. “Every single case put a white man’s honor on trial. If the case revolved around a slave’s behavior, it immediately reflected on the master’s ability to manage the slave.”
Combining the methods of cultural anthropology, quantitative social history and critical race theory, Gross brings to life the law and culture of slavery from the perspective of litigants, lawyers, doctors and the slaves themselves. “I spent weeks and months ... looking at records that hadn’t been touched in 150 years,” she says. “It was like being presented with a window.”
Double Character reveals the surprising extent to which a Southern lawyer’s practice was based on civil lawsuits arising out of slavery. “It was their daily bread,” Gross says. “They had no compunction about representing slave traders.”
Doctors, too, were deeply involved in legitimizing the institution. “Much of medical practice was either in the slave marketplace certifying a slave as fit, or in the courtroom, testifying about a postmortem,” she says.
Gross demonstrates just how central slavery was to Southern society. “This study is an example of how the law is lived by ordinary people,” she says. “It shows that laws aren’t just handed down by the Supreme Court and the legislature, but are testaments to what people make them.”

– Sharon Stewart

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Photograph by Rick Szsechowski

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