Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom

Posted: 18 Oct 2000

See all articles by Ariela Julie Gross

Ariela Julie Gross

University of Southern California Law School


This study of the day-to-day law and culture of slavery investigates the local courtrooms of the Deep South where ordinary people settled their disputes over slaves. Buyers sued sellers for breach of warranty when they considered slaves to be physically or morally defective; owners sued supervisors who whipped or neglected slaves under their care. Double Character seeks to explain how communities dealt with an important dilemma raised by these trials: how could slaves who acted as moral agents be treated as commodities? Because these cases made the character of slaves a central legal question, slaves' moral agency intruded into the courtroom, often challenging the character of the slaveholders who saw themselves as honorable masters. The book looks at the stories about white and black character witnesses and litigants put forth in court and not only reveals the role of law in constructing "race," but also offers a portrait of the culture of slavery, one that addresses historical debates about law, honor, and commerce in the American south.

Double Character maintains that witnesses and litigants drew on narratives available in the culture at large to explain the nature and origins of slaves' character, such as why slaves became runaways. But the legal process also shaped their expression of racial ideology by favoring certain explanations over others. The book combines the methods of cultural anthropology, quantitative social history, and critical race theory.

Suggested Citation

Gross, Ariela Julie, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom. Available at SSRN:

Ariela Julie Gross (Contact Author)

University of Southern California Law School ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States
213-740-4793 (Phone)
213-740-5502 (Fax)

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