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  • Women, Blood, and Contract
  • Shirley Samuels (bio)

This essay juxtaposes contracts involving women and blood in three historical novels written in the early nineteenth-century US. The publication of these novels—Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824), Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827), and James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826)—between 1824 and 1827 did not come at an arbitrary time.1 They refer to the past for their stories, yet their publication is surrounded by a powerfully absent immediate context, providing an opportunity to review the relation of claims about citizenship and identity to claims about national territory. In particular, the 1820 Missouri Compromise "forever prohibited" slavery above a certain latitude in what was then called Louisiana; the controversial Supreme Court decision in Illinois, Johnson and Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh of 1823, restricted land claims; the extraordinary date of 4 July 1826, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other and changed the landscape of American leadership; the 1828–29 Black Hawk war, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, by which Andrew Jackson sought to make it legal to remove "Indians residing in any of the states or territories . . . west of the river Mississippi."2 Such events decisively shaped the landscape of the US as a territory driven by the forcible push west.

These novels present contracts about land through the visibility of women and blood. Crucial scenes present women engaged in the shedding of blood as a contract with hidden terms. Such terms are not always legible to the reader, nor to the women characters for whom blood stands in for a contract alternately desired, rejected, or involuntarily enacted. In all cases, the contract [End Page 57] that blood displays turns out to be a contract about the crossing of blood. Even as such a crossing implies sexual contracts, I will also emphasize how anxiety about racial mixing becomes imbricated in contracts about land, as well as legal constructs about the relation of the land to the nation. Legal contracts about blood and land in the early republic rely on the hidden terms of women's bodies. Hence, the appearance of blood signals a strong visibility that paradoxically at once highlights and obscures the violence of marriage across blood lines.3 That is, the sight of blood stands in for the instability of women in these contracts, contracts re-enacted in the powerful language of historical fiction.

Perhaps the culminating decision for this decade of determinations about land and possession was in 1831 when, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, the Supreme Court decided to use the term "domestic dependent nations." An announcement that a nation might be "dependent" places the inhabitants of that nation in a feminized relation to the inhabitants of another nation. To assert that there will be not only a racial difference but also a legal and national difference between the citizenship rights of white inhabitants of the US and the inhabitants of "dependent nations" is to make the matter of blood both about national belonging and about marriage. When Supreme Court Justice John Marshall invoked the phrase "domestic dependent nations," he sought to justify the forced removal of Cherokee peoples from Georgia and to forbid them any ability to protest a violation of contract with a sovereign nation. That is, these terms—domestic, dependent—at once are based in law and feminize a state of dependence that resembles Blackstone's influential commentaries on English law and their declarations about the status of women in marriage. Having signed that contract, a signing that presumes agency, a woman becomes, he declared, legally dead (430).4 The legal death of women becomes less of an abstraction, or it is removed from the abstract into the physical or material realm, in historical fiction that presents women whose blood appears as a marker of their exchange value.

What it takes to inherit land thus becomes a matter of what emerges from a woman's body. By an analogical structure of equivalence and reciprocity, the blood spilled from a woman's body through marriage and childbirth sometimes acquires...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 57-75
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-13
Open Access
No
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