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Fathers of Conscience

Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Fathers of Conscience
    Book Description:

    Fathers of Conscience examines high-court decisions in the antebellum South that involved wills in which white male planters bequeathed property, freedom, or both to women of color and their mixed-race children. These men, whose wills were contested by their white relatives, had used trusts and estates law to give their slave partners and children official recognition and thus circumvent the law of slavery. The will contests that followed determined whether that elevated status would be approved or denied by courts of law. Bernie D. Jones argues that these will contests indicated a struggle within the elite over race, gender, and class issues--over questions of social mores and who was truly family. Judges thus acted as umpires after a man's death, deciding whether to permit his attempts to provide for his slave partner and family. Her analysis of these differing judicial opinions on inheritance rights for slave partners makes an important contribution to the literature on the law of slavery in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4230-6
    Subjects: Law, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION. Inheritance Rights in the Antebellum South
    (pp. 1-20)

    This book considers how whites of the antebellum South negotiated inheritance rights when slave beneficiaries were related by blood to their late owners. Were slave owners who partnered with enslaved black women and who fathered mixed-race children able to manumit in their wills and grant property to the women and children? How did the men’s white relatives react to such bequests? When judges hearing cases of contested wills responded in the appellate courts, what type of language did they use in describing the men? How did that use of language determine whether the wills would stand? What was the influence...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Righteous Fathers, Vulnerable Old Men, and Degraded Creatures
    (pp. 21-42)

    Robert weisberg has suggested that “narrative is a form of legal practice; legal practice and judging are partly ethical tasks.”¹ Judges use their “skill in devising rhetoric to capture appropriate moral outcomes or to craft fair legal results … observing or crafting narrative patterns as a matter of situation-sense in conventional social settings where conventional moral issues may appear.”² When state high court judges in the antebellum South used narrative to develop an image of the men whose last wills were contested, they built upon perceptions of ethics and morality in a slave regime. But these narratives did not question...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Slavery, Freedom, and the Rule of Law
    (pp. 43-67)

    Considering that legal thinkers of the antebellum South viewed slavery as fulfilling natural law and upholding the proper order of society, it is only logical that various judges hearing cases focused solely upon the formal laws of slavery.¹ They desired strict adherence to the law as established by local legislation and case law, in pursuit of the ultimate social policy goal: preventing an increase in the free black population. These judges were deeply suspicious of wills that appeared to manumit slaves within southern states and grant them privileges: property and status as free people. They denied manumission as a result....

  7. CHAPTER THREE Justice and Mercy in the Kentucky Court of Appeals
    (pp. 68-97)

    Cases of contested wills that were resolved in favor of the enslaved beneficiaries could have implications years into the future.¹ Once a beneficiary became free, that freedom laid a foundation for future descendants to become part of a growing community of black working- and middle-class individuals and families. Such populations would not have existed without earlier generations of enslaved men and women becoming liberated from slavery. An example can be found in two cases discussed earlier: Hubbard’s Will (Ky., 1831) and Narcissa’s Executors v. Wathan et al. (Ky., 1842). Because the Kentucky Court of Appeals was willing to rule in...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Circling the Wagons and Clamping Down: The Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals
    (pp. 98-124)

    In april 1859 judge william l. harris of the Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals drafted an acerbic opinion in the case of William Mitchell against Nancy Wells, one of the last cases the court would hear on the question of inheritance rights for a former slave, the biological child of her slave owner father. Judge Harris voiced the resentment felt by southerners who believed their institution of slavery was under attack in the form of free blacks liberated in northern states who then returned to their home states, claiming rights equal to whites: to sue for an inheritance....

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The People of Barnwell against the Supreme Court of South Carolina: The Case of Elijah Willis
    (pp. 125-150)

    State manumission policies that permitted free blacks to live within the state drew white citizens into legislative debates, insofar as they used petitions to state their preference. As indicated in Mississippi, local whites signed affidavits in support of the manumission of local blacks. Others signed petitions in support of policies that would deny their neighbors the right to remain in the state. But in South Carolina the struggle over inheritance rights for slave partners and their children pushed local whites to petition the legislature to reject a decision signed by the state high court in upholding the will of an...

  10. CONCLUSION. The Law’s Paradox of Property and Power: The Significance of Geography
    (pp. 151-156)

    This book is unique insofar as it demonstrates the significance of what Ariela Gross has described as a cultural approach to legal history, an investigation into “trial records in order to view the law from other perspectives—not only that of the judge but those of witnesses, litigants, jurors, and even slaves.”¹ It explores the “confrontation between ordinary people and the apparatus of the state, and thus provid[ing] an opportunity for historians to explore power relations at a level closer to people’s actual lives.”²

    Fathers of Conscience demonstrates the process by which judges of the state high courts of the...

  11. APPENDIX ONE. Case Indexes
    (pp. 157-158)
  12. APPENDIX TWO. Opinions on the Emancipation of Slaves during George Robertson’s Tenure as Chief Justice
    (pp. 159-159)
  13. APPENDIX THREE. Supplementary Information Regarding Willis v. Jolliffe
    (pp. 160-164)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 165-182)
    (pp. 183-188)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 189-197)