Like Master, Like Man
Constructing Whiteness through the Commercial Law of Slavery, 1800-1861, in Symposium: Bondage, Freedom, and the Constitution, in the Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1996).
Posted: 19 Sep 1997
This article draws on the trial court records of civil disputes involving slaves, such as breach of warranty for slaves who fell ill or ran away soon after sale or hire, or tort suits for damages to slaves by agents, overseers, or hirers. These cases were the most common occasion for litigation over slaves, and despite their routine commercial nature, provided an important arena for contests over white men's character. Trials of civil disputes over slaves called white men's character as masters into question, and because white honor was so tied up with mastery over slaves, they put white men's honor on the line.Warranty and hire cases involving runaways put mastery on trial when litigants portrayed runaway slaves' character as a function of management by masters. Tort cases involving neglect or cruelty offered parties and judges an opportunity to articulate standards of mastery even more directly. I argue that the "good master" conjured in these cases was less a benevolent paternalist than a "statesman-like" disciplinarian and smart manager. Through this image of mastery, the commercial law of slavery helped to construct "whiteness" in terms of both honor and profit.
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