- Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century by Tera W. Hunter
The history of slave marriage is a relatively well-studied topic, first birthed in the 1970s through a rising interest in the cultural history of slavery. Since then, researchers from various disciplines have published state-based and comparative histories that examine the domestic lives of enslaved people, showing how they loved, courted, married, and even fought one another. Tera Hunter's Bound in Wedlock is the most recent addition to this growing canon. It is an exhaustive study of both slave and free black marriages, the latter of which is a topic that until recently was vastly underexamined. Drawing on a wide swath of primary sources, some previously unknown, Hunter provides the most complete analysis of how African Americans ascribed meaning to their marriages while the legal and [End Page 306] sociopolitical spheres of both antebellum and postemancipation America sought to circumscribe the strength of their domestic attachments. Given the book's length, it is impossible for this review to encapsulate the many salient revelations it provides, but a few areas deserve special recognition for their groundbreaking conclusions.
Hunter's analysis of slaves' wedding ceremonies both synthesizes the secondary literature and draws on a plethora of primary sources. She specifically engages with the debates about slave agency and coercion in the wedding ceremony, using secondary sources and a large selection of ex-slave testimonials to analyze the custom of "jumping the broom." She also notes that most enslaved people had not converted to Christianity by the nineteenth century but understood that being married "according to the gospel" provided certain social benefits in the eyes of their community and the slave owner (46). Hunter demonstrates, however, that wedding ceremonies largely reflected one's status within the group, as Christian services were largely reserved for a few elite slaves who held the master's favor. Still, enslaved people were resilient in confirming their commitments to one another, in public and in private, and Hunter shows how their humanity was reflected in how they loved one another under such tenuous circumstances.
Outside its attention to the sociocultural dimensions of African American weddings, Bound in Wedlock provides an impressive legal analysis that excavates the competing rhetoric of politicians, lawmakers, religious authorities, and activists who opined on the necessity of legalizing enslaved unions. Though questions of marital legality were ever present in the nineteenth century, providing an extended analysis of slave marital law is not an easy task. The difficulty stems mainly from the absence of actual stipulations written into federal and state constitutions. Lawmakers simply assumed that enslaved people, defined as chattel property, could not engage in a contract, nullifying their ability to autonomously make decisions. Thus specific guidelines about the legality of slave marriage were null under American law. Outside of a few local exceptions, most slave codes did not mention anything about the illegality of slave marriage. Lawmakers knew that even raising the question angered the powerful bloc of southern slave owners, who viewed such discussions as a challenge to their property rights. When law did intersect with slaves' marital relations, Hunter notes, it was not a "neutral instrument," as it offered little protection and was used to destroy the integrity of their familial structures (70).
One of the book's most compelling chapters examines the dimensions of free black marriage in the antebellum period. As Hunter notes, the marriage and family patterns of free black southerners are significantly [End Page 307] understudied, especially when discussing the social tumult that accompanied such relationships in the Deep South. Although no state completely barred free people of color from contracting marriages, certain laws complicated how legitimacy and inheritance were determined among the children of free black couples. Hunter notes that being "free" was often visualized as being "white," and an 1822 law in Mississippi even stated that only marriages between "free white persons" were recognized in the state (101...