After a hiatus for Independence
Day Week, we’re back today for chapters six and seven of Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. These chapters guide us into the eighteenth century, showing how an increasingly recognizable racial order, predicated on the authority of white householders, took shape in Virginia.
To review a bit: The last two chapters focused on problems of labor and leadership. Brown traced the “naturalization” of racial bondage through legal structures based on white and black women’s roles in the economy (in chapter four) and on Bacon’s Rebellion as a crisis of white masculine authority (in chapter five). After Bacon’s Rebellion, Brown suggested, the colony was forced to acknowledge the military importance of non-elite white householders. By doing so, the colony reinforced free white men’s difference from both racial and sexual others. Thus, patriarchy was, in a sense, democratized at the end of the seventeenth century. But this meant clearer distinctions between white and nonwhite men as well as between men and women.
Today, chapter six guides us through a shift in the way Virginia’s courts regulated female sexuality during the same decades. These changes, Brown writes, were undertaken largely to protect masters’ investment in female servants and to reinforce the racially defined boundaries of slavery.
First, in the late seventeenth century, the colony increasingly sought to punish bastardy rather than sinful sexual behavior per se. This had the effect of weakening the authority of women in Virginia’s courts. Thanks to this shift toward pregnancy as evidence of fornication, justices now relied less upon the evidence of reputation, which was often controlled by a community’s women.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s sexual regulations also began explicitly to recognize racial difference. In 1662, the colonial assembly defined slavery as a condition transmitted through the mother (eradicating the paternal claims of enslaved men) and doubled the fines for interracial fornication. In light of the new focus on bastardy, the latter provision placed a disproportionate burden on white women involved with nonwhite men. Then, in 1691, the assembly outlawed interracial marriage and enacted harsh penalties for interracial bastardy—in principle, securing the exclusive sexual rights of white men to white women. In practice, this complex of laws meant that white men, including masters, were rarely punished for rape, but black men were.
Thus, the patriarchal claims of white Virginia men were secured by laws that constructed race as a sexual as well as class binary.
The identification of slavery with non-whiteness, however, was complicated by the existence of growing numbers of free people of African and Indian descent. As chapter seven shows, Virginia’s legislators struggled in the early eighteenth century to come to terms with the racial identities of these free people of color. After slave rebellions, the assembly generally acted in ways that identified free black, mulatto, and Indian men with black slaves, e.g., by explicitly banning all men of color from the militia in 1723. Such regulations and expectations forced free people of color, both African and Indian, to negotiate the meaning of their identities on their own.
Sometimes this negotiation happened through formal legal channels, including petitioning. More often, however, free people of color in Virginia created informal support networks and community structures—including family arrangements, sometimes-illicit sexual relationships, and business agreements that all tended to demonstrate the law’s limits as a cultural force. The Virginia assembly could pass what laws it chose, but free people of color, living outside the presumptive binary between enslaved and free people, would have to build their own communities in their own ways.
I think these chapters raise a number of interesting questions. To get discussion started, here are two:
- The end of chapter seven, which stresses the law’s limits as a cultural force, seems to exist in uneasy tension with the claims of chapter six. In the earlier section, Brown suggests that sexual regulations profoundly affected how ordinary white Virginians perceived racial difference. Yet her evidence for that is (necessarily) fragmentary. Should the vexed and legally informal status of relationships in free black communities make us hesitate to draw firm conclusions about how white communities were influenced by the same laws?
- Since we have consistently been approaching Good Wives from the perspective of teachers, do these chapters provide a manageable way to reshape undergraduate students’ understanding of race as a historical phenomenon? In other words, I suppose, is there a concept in these chapters comparable to “the gender frontier“–a pithy way to cut through the forest of detail and make these chapters applicable to other situations?