Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

Fathers of Conscience: Mixed-Race Inheritance in the Antebellum South

University Of Georgia Press
February 2009
216 pages
6 x 9 in.
ISBN: 0820332518 (paper), 0820329800 (cloth)

Bernie D. Jones, Associate Professor of Law
Suffolk University

How the courts dealt with wills bequeathing property or freedom to mixed race children.

Fathers of Conscience examines high-court decisions in the antebellum South that involved wills in which white male planters bequeathed property, freedom, or both to women of color and their mixed-race children. These men, whose wills were contested by their white relatives, had used trusts and estates law to give their slave partners and children official recognition and thus circumvent the law of slavery. The will contests that followed determined whether that elevated status would be approved or denied by courts of law.

Bernie D. Jones argues that these will contests indicated a struggle within the elite over race, gender, and class issues-over questions of social mores and who was truly family. Judges thus acted as umpires after a man’s death, deciding whether to permit his attempts to provide for his slave partner and family. Her analysis of these differing judicial opinions on inheritance rights for slave partners makes an important contribution to the literature on the law of slavery in the United States.


  • Preface
  • Introduction. Inheritance Rights in the Antebellum South
  • Chapter One. Righteous Fathers, Vulnerable Old Men, and Degraded Creatures
  • Chapter Two. Slavery, Freedom, and the Rule of Law
  • Chapter Three. Justice and Mercy in the Kentucky Court of Appeals
  • Chapter Four. Circling the Wagons and Clamping Down: The Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals
  • Chapter Five. The People of Barnwell against the Supreme Court of South Carolina: The Case of Elijah Willis
  • Conclusion. The Law’s Paradox of Property and Power: The Significance of Geography
  • Appendix One. Case Indexes
  • Appendix Two. Opinions on the Emancipation of Slaves during George Robertson’s Tenure as Chief Justice
  • Appendix Three. Supplementary Information Regarding Willis v. Jolliffe
  • Notes
  • Bibliographic essay
  • Index
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