- Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law—An American History
Tell the Court I Love My Wife is a refreshingly broad social, political, and legal history of race and marriage. Peter Wallenstein aims to “supply a historical context and outline a reliable interpretive structure within which to understand” the history of interracial marriage in the U.S. (9). He includes not only African Americans but also Native Americans and Asian Americans in his discussion, covering over three hundred years of American history in the process.
Tell the Court I Love My Wife is, at base, a book about “miscegenation,” which refers to “laws that regulated interracial marriage” (9). As with most recent studies of “race,” Wallenstein’s operates at the “intersections of race and sex.” His examination, however, is anchored concretely because the author reads the history of interracial relationships in the context of “law and culture, marriage and property, identity and power” to show how “the public sphere sought to govern the most private dimensions of people’s lives” and to illustrate how individual challenges to antimiscegenation laws in turn influenced public policy. This is, then, “a study of power—power imposed, power resisted” (5). While clearly aware that “race” is a social construction, Wallenstein aims to shows that the “myth” of race had very real consequences, ranging from profound emotional turmoil to the prevention of “the conveyance of wealth from white to nonwhite” (6, 162).
Wallenstein devotes four thoughtful chapters to the years 1660–1860 in which he charts the evolution of colonial and antebellum statutes regulating race and marriage. The principal focus, though, is on the years following the Civil War, a period in which miscegenation laws in the United States became more universal, when transgressions were punished more severely, and when many states redefined the boundary between white and nonwhite racial identities in an effort to make “whiteness” more exclusive. By the 1940s, such laws came under sustained legal scrutiny and eventually collapsed with the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case.
As Wallenstein makes clear, the history of miscegenation law is one best understood through an examination of federal and state law. Before the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court treated miscegenation laws as constitutional, upholding them in Pace v. Alabama (1883) and reaffirming them in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Buchanan v. Warley (1917). Critically, questions of interracial marriage were left largely to local and state discretion. As such, there was tremendous variation in where and when interracial marriages were banned: some bans were enacted as early as 1664 (Maryland), repealed as early as 1780 (Pennsylvania), “and [End Page 1077] elaborated as late as the 1930s, when California, Arizona, Maryland, and Utah all acted to bar men from the Philippines from marrying white women” (3).
Laws against interracial marriage were pernicious in every respect, limiting the choices of whites and nonwhites alike. Ironies abounded. Not only did laws against miscegenation limit the personal and civil freedom of white men but these same laws also often served to encourage interracial couples to maintain a sexual relationship outside of marriage. In this way, laws against interracial marriage challenged some of the basic tenets of what liberals and conservatives alike considered central to American identity: individual liberty and the sanctity and desirability of marriage.
Integral to Wallenstein’s study is a thoughtful discussion of how “racial identity” (his preferred term to “race”) was defined and redefined over the years. Sometimes, racial reclassification could be effected quite quickly (the very speed of the redefinition revealing the fiction of “race”). At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, segregation inspired the gerrymandering of new racial identities. Here, Wallenstein helpfully reminds us that the so-called “one-drop” rule (the notion that any “African” blood whatsoever defined one as “black”) evolved in response to local initiatives and was never really ubiquitous. Virginia, for instance, had traditionally considered someone black if they had one-fourth African ancestry. In response to the imperatives of segregation, the...