This week in the Junto Summer Book Club we’ll be looking at chapters 4 and 5, in which Brown looks first at the beginnings of Virginia’s slave system in the mid-seventeenth century, and then at the memorable—and highly teachable—events of Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s.
In the first week, we discussed Brown’s ambition to “treat gender, slavery, and elite dominance as interrelated relationships of power whose histories intersect and mutually shape one another,” while in the second we focused on Brown’s concept of the “gender frontier” as a way of thinking about European colonists’ contact with Algonquians in early Virginia. Now, as we reach the core of the book, and as the colony becomes less existentially fragile, our attention is drawn to the role of law in the construction of gender and race relations, and to conflict between models of masculinity at the very top of Virginia society.
In both of this week’s chapters, I was struck by the way Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs offers itself as a companion to Edmund Morgan’s enduringly important 1975 book American Slavery, American Freedom. Where Morgan’s book has the advantages of being not only readable, but a remarkably elegant solution to the problem of early American history, Brown’s is in some ways its opposite: in the sheer breadth and weight of its thoughtfulness and attentiveness to historical difference, it’s like a warning sign to readers of American Slavery—”Hold on, wasn’t it more complicated than that?”
Chapter 4, “Engendering Racial Difference, 1640-1670″ begins by taking to task the hoary historiographical debate over the origins of slavery and racism. “The discussion thus far,” Brown writes in 1996, “centers on the relationship between attitudes toward race and Virginia’s racially based slave labor system, with some scholars claiming precedence for racism and others contending that it followed the legal codification of slavery.” But Brown finds that whole debate unhelpful. “When legal, literary, and mercantile discourses of race are examined along with actual practices of coerced labor, the relationship between racism and slavery becomes much more complicated, defying our efforts to designate one as a cause of the other.”
The main line of argument of the chapter itself is that the gradual introduction of the slave system into Virginia complicated and helped to define gender roles and class relations, as distinctions began to be made between white and black women, women who worked in the field and those who didn’t, and the kinds of families and marriages these different categories of women were allowed. Using the developing body of tax and slave law as her primary evidence-base, Brown seems to focus here on the way women’s lives were governed by the decisions of elite men, and the needs of the developing slave economy. “These early laws,” she concludes, “… created a legal discourse of slavery rooted in the sexual, social, and economic lives of African laborers and effectively naturalized the condition of slavery by connecting it to a concept of race.” Race didn’t cause slavery, or vice versa, but they were manipulated to support each other by those who would benefit.
In chapter 5, Brown looks at Bacon’s Rebellion through the lens of competing colonial and English masculinities. “Bacon’s Rebellion produced new meanings for colonial honor, masculinity, and identity, reconfiguring the relationship between political authority, on the one hand, and the social relations of gender, race, and class, on the other.” Very much like Morgan, Brown argues that the rebellion and its aftermath resulted in a strengthened social order grounded in slavery; where Morgan’s lenses are race and, to a lesser extent, class, Brown uses gender to uncover the complexity of those other categories, but she comes to much the same conclusion. For her, white solidarity resting on the backs of “black laborers” was bolstered by “the recognition of all white men as potential patriarchs.”
So does Brown add to the historiography of early Virginia simply by complicating previous narratives—by bringing gender issues into questions that have previously been framed around race and class, and bringing women into stories that have been too ready to ignore them? Or does she succeed in her goal of showing how gender was actually integral to the development of other categories and the social order?
What does Brown’s chapter on Bacon’s Rebellion add to Morgan’s account, and would you assign the two alongside each other? And what effect does her use of different kinds of sources in each chapter have on the shape of her argument, and the book as a whole? Those are just a few of the questions my reading of these chapters brought up; but I look forward to seeing what you all think!