The antebellum South was a violent place. On the eve of the American Civil War, approximately four million enslaved African Americans performed back-breaking labor from sunup to sundown under the constant threat of physical punishment, sexual abuse, and separation from loved ones. Scholars have long noted that white-on-black violence structured everyday life for enslaved people, but they have been less willing to discuss violence within slave communities.
Jeff Forret's Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South is the first study to comprehensively examine slavery's intraracial violence. The work is not a conservative throwback to pre-revisionist historiography, simplistically equating violence with deviance, pathology, and broken communities. Instead, Forret explores how violence played a "constructive role" in slave communities: People fight over what they value the most (25). Through violence, enslaved people established and policed moral and ethical codes, created hierarchies, and performed distinct gendered roles. In this way, Forret restores agency and humanity to enslaved people. He examines the full range of human emotions: The slaves in his study are motivated by love, hate, anger, jealously, honor, greed, revenge, and manhood; they boast, curse, steal, murder, and commit adultery. Slave against Slave is exhaustively researched—there are over eighty pages of informative notes. Forret has mined an astonishing range of court transcripts, church records, and petitions, as well as slave narratives and slaveholder records. Fans of quantitative history will be delighted: Useful statistics and calculations from court records are presented throughout.
The opening three chapters discuss the origins, prevalence, and patterns of slave violence across the South and how different states and court systems policed intraracial slave violence such as homicide. Louisiana, for example, was unique because it was the only state to follow the civil-law tradition. Accordingly, slaveholders were liable for their slaves' [End Page 573] misdemeanors, and so slaveholders sued one another in civil court when slaves were severely injured or killed. All other slaveholding states followed common-law tradition, and masters could not be held liable for the actions of their slaves. In these states, criminal law adjudicated. Masters were not financially reimbursed for deceased slaves, but in most states they received varying levels of compensation for executed and lawfully sold-off slaves. Criminal trials differed among states. By the antebellum period, most states—except Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana—granted slaves jury trials. Different degrees of homicide existed among states: Arkansas recognized only murder for slaves; Delaware recognized second-degree murder.
The remaining five chapters delve into the private world of enslaved people, investigating why slaves lashed out at one another. Slaves argued and fought at work over tools and tasks. They clashed at weekend parties, especially when drunk. Property disputes triggered a significant degree of violence among slaves. Thefts, unpaid debts, and the breakdown of trade fueled conflict. Women fought most frequently over clothing; men fought over food, seeing themselves as breadwinners for their families. Forret also probes the family life of enslaved people and examines the functional, constructive power of violence: Slaves resorted to violence to protect their families and enforce moral codes in communities. Men, for example, fought for women and took vengeance upon other slaves who challenged their claims to women. The destructive forces of violent behaviors are also studied: Domestic abuse in the slave family was not uncommon, a chief cause being the male's lack of authority over the family. Men lashed out at women and children to secure themselves as heads of their households. In addition, they responded violently to the dissolution of relationships and news of unwanted pregnancies.
The last two chapters focus on gender. Historians have long noted that an honor code thrived among white men in the antebellum South. Forret, though, demonstrates how a code of honor flourished among enslaved people. This code was intimately related to black definitions of masculinity: Men defended their honor through violence and negotiated claims to masculinity accordingly. Forret uses court testimony to restage the "language of honour"—dares, threats, ritual boasts, challenges, and...