PAULA MITCHELL MARKS, Editor
Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860. By Thomas D. Morris. (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Pp. x+575. Acknowledgments, in-
troduction, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 0-80787-2238-8. $49.95,
The antebellum South's Peculiar Institution remains an amazingly fertile sub-
ject of investigation for American historians. Most studies of slavery deal to some
extent with the institution's legal framework, but Thomas D. Morris's massively
researched work provides an unprecedented depth of analysis and offers conclu-
sions that can only be termed (with all due apologies for being trite) provoca-
Part i of the study examines the origins of the law of slavery in the United
States. Race, of course, played a key role in determining who could be enslaved,
and as it became clear that only blacks would be slaves, English common law
provided the core of the legal principles that maintained a system of human
bondage. Common law was the heritage of most colonists, Morris points out,
and it best accommodated the fact that slaves were property.
Part 2 deals with the many ways in which bondsmen were treated as proper-
ty-"things" that could be bought and sold, mortgaged, bequeathed, hired out,
and so on. Try as they might, however, Southern judges and lawmakers could
never escape entirely the fact that the property in question was also human.
Part 3 analyzes the complexities of legal recognitions that slaves were persons
as well as property. Unlike other "things," bondsmen could, for example, com-
mit crimes and have crimes committed against them. The resulting difficulties in
deciding how to protect slaves while insuring the rights of their masters and up-
holding the institution in general were endless.
Every chapter shows readers that the South had no single law of slavery, be-
cause each state developed its own interpretations of the common law and, in-
creasingly in the nineteenth century, its own statute laws. Generally, Morris
contends, those building the legal context sought to fit slaves into the ideas of
property and contract rights associated with liberal capitalism. That is, the law
would recognize an absolute property right on the part of slaveholders and con-
sider the slave as absolutely without any rights as a person. This formulation,
however, proved impossible in a South affected by evangelical Christianity,
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 100, July 1996 - April, 1997. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101218/. Accessed March 13, 2014.