Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 135
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Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas
Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. By Sally E. Hadden (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2001) 340 pp. $35.00
This is a good book about a surprisingly neglected subject. Studies of slavery frequently mention the night riders who enforced the slave codes in the quarters; almost none, however, have given the system the sustained attention that it merits. Hadden's careful study of the institution in the two Carolinas and Virginia from the colonial period to Reconstruction remedies the oversight. The bulk of her discussion covers the organization, personnel, and activities of the patrols through the Civil War. An epilogue examines the reincarnation of the system by the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations targeting freedmen.
The most surprising and interesting findings concern differences in the system among the three regions. On paper at least, North Carolina, which had the fewest slaves, had the most regular arrangements: By the nineteenth century, local commissioners supervised the activities of the patrols; regulations prohibited whipping a slave unless another man was present; and the state paid patrollers. Some Virginia counties compensated men for patrol duty by remitting part of their taxes, and in the two most closely examined counties, propertyholders—including slaveholders—made up most of the patrols. In South Carolina, however, where the slave population was proportionally the largest, substantial planters tried to avoid the service, men who served generally received no compensation for what contemporaries implied was often "a frolic" (171), and lawmakers felt compelled to legislate against drunkenness while on duty.
Juxtaposing these characteristics suggests a striking anomaly—namely, that the patrols were probably the most efficient where they would seem to have been relatively superfluous and least efficient in areas of colonial South Carolina where the African population most heavily outnumbered whites. Explaining the thinking of the patrollers, as well as the functioning of these societies as a whole, requires a more interdisciplinary approach than the author has adopted. She has made an excellent beginning; the book is thoroughly researched and, in a descriptive sense, remarkably complete and commendably cautious. But borrowing from recent work in criminal justice on the self-perception of prison guards might have yielded useful, if oblique, insights. More important, sociologists have long been aware of a tendency for communities to define prohibited behavior so as not to exceed their capacity for controlling it. How this propensity affected the operation of the patrols remains an open question worth additional investigation.
Robert M. Weir
University of South Carolina