Summer Book Club, Week 4

Brown GWNWAfter 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?
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2 comments on “Summer Book Club, Week 4

  1. Kent Peacock says:

    In regards to Jonathan’s first question, I think Brown has a more convincing argument that the new sexual regulations profoundly affected how elite (and perhaps middling, what existed of them) whites perceived racial difference than “ordinary” or all white Virginians. In other words, those who enacted law and handed out punishments certainly show changes in how they perceive racial difference. Whether the lower class whites or servants showed a change in the perception of racial difference I think is still debatable, especially when one considers her evidence in Chapter 7 that shows a range of interactions across the color line. For example, the inability for non-whites to testify in court became a liability for some whites and they complained about it. While this may have increased awareness of difference based on race, the fact that some whites still desired to use the testimony of non-whites does not convince me that a large change had occurred. Her best evidence for her argument on a shift in white’s perception of racial difference is the first presence of race-based libel. I wish she had included more of this, although perhaps other scholars have written on this change.
    One other comment I had at the end of these chapters is that the color line appears to be almost exclusively about African and English. However, the color line was not just about black and white. In Chapter 7 Brown does insert some evidence concerning Native Americans and how they played a role in this system, but it left me wanting more. My question is, if native peoples were so important at the beginning of the colony, especially in establishing definitions of Englishness, why are they such a small part of the narrative after then? My guess is that part of the problem is Brown’s focus on the records of three counties, which may had small native populations. Thus, while the colony-wide laws pay attention to native peoples, they do not appear much in the local sources Brown uses. How much would the narrative change if she had focused on more “backcountry” counties with greater native populations? Another reason for their absence is the possibility that Indians posed less of a threat to the social order because many did not live with whites like Africans did; Indians remained in separate communities/nations making the intimate encounters at the center of Brown’s work less possible. This does not mean Indians are unimportant to how the English construct the categories of race or gender, but perhaps sexual relations is not the best subject to use when it comes to the role of Indians in the construction of these categories.
    In terms of Jonathan’s second question, I’ll admit that I’m not sure if there is a good concept to use. The most helpful thing I can think of right now is that it would help students to view the chapters as telling a similar argument, that the control of sexuality became a prime part of establishing race and gender in Virginia, but from two viewpoints. Chapter six comes from a top-down approach while seven is a bottom-up, even if the reader only gets the viewpoint of non-whites.

  2. bryandumas says:

    Brown’s book is an engaging study of early colonial society.

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