- Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia by Ted Maris-Wolf
Between 1854, shortly before Virginia passed its first general self-enslavement law, and the end of the Civil War, over one hundred free people of color appealed to the state to return them to enslaved status. In this rigorously researched, carefully argued book, Ted Maris-Wolf builds on these anomalous cases to develop a nuanced history of self-enslavement in Virginia, from the Revolution through the Civil War. Most discussions of self-enslavement laws frame them within white southerners’ aggressive efforts to narrow the already precarious legal footing on which free people of color existed in the antebellum South. In contrast, Family Bonds calls for examining the laws within the broad array of strategies free blacks used to evade deportation. Beyond its reinterpretation of self-enslavement, the book provides vivid accounts of how free people of color sustained families, businesses, and communities within a legal context that criminalized their presence in the state.
The book begins with an examination of the contest over free blacks’ rights to Virginia residency in the early republic. In 1806, less than a generation after the state liberalized its manumission laws in 1782, Virginia made expulsion the presumptive sequel to emancipation. Although inconsistently enforced, the law had a chilling effect on manumissions and prefigured demagogues’ future scapegoating of free blacks. While Maris-Wolf argues that republican fears of unrestrained state power made most white Virginians unwilling to support the most extreme expulsion proposals, he also demonstrates that the threat of removal menaced free blacks regularly, if erratically, throughout the antebellum era.
If republican ideology reined in radical deportation programs, it was the complex community bonds connecting free blacks and whites that provided the most effective protection against removal in Maris-Wolf’s analysis. In all seven chapters, Family Bonds provides subtle portraits of interracial relationships built through kinship, commercial interactions, worship, and slavery itself. The book argues that the infrequent enforcement of [End Page 445] removal laws reflected free blacks’ standing as valued members of their communities, demonstrating that the practice of law was deeply embedded in social life. The book’s reconstruction of one particular case, that of Andrew and Willis Doswell, is central to the author’s claim that free blacks pushed the legislature to pass self-enslavement laws. When county officials took the unusual step of pursuing removal of the two men, the Doswells identified re-enslavement as a tool that would slow prosecution and ultimately enable them to remain within their community. Maris-Wolf argues that others facing removal proceedings learned of their success and sought similar relief, ultimately prompting passage of legislation that regularized the process. For free people of color facing the profound rupture of separation from family and communities in which they had sometimes prospered, self-enslavement was a treacherous but sometimes invaluable weapon in the battle to preserve control over their lives.
Through assiduous research in all levels of court records, as well as in business and legislative materials, Maris-Wolf has uncovered free blacks’ strenuous efforts to make the law and their relationships serve their understandings of their rights. While he draws on the work of Barbara Young Welke and Kunal M. Parker to frame his interpretation of free blacks’ standing as citizens, this deeply empirical book foregrounds complex individual stories painstakingly recovered from a highly dispersed archive. The book provides a model for how historians can draw marginalized historical subjects out of constrained sources. Yet Maris-Wolf also recognizes the limitations of his sources. The book provides clarifying statistics on legal actions and outcomes but avoids charts, acknowledging the fragmentary source base and the potential of such representations to overstate how systematic authorities were in treating these cases. The book demonstrates that particulars, like social connections, more often than general legal principles, decided outcomes.
By constructing a history of self-enslavement that foregrounds free people of color, Family Bonds not only brings their strategic engagement with law...