The Fight for Interracial Marriage Rights in Antebellum Massachusetts by Amber D. Moulton (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Law, Media Archive, United States on 2017-03-25 22:36Z by Steven

The Fight for Interracial Marriage Rights in Antebellum Massachusetts by Amber D. Moulton (review)

Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2017
pages 183-185
DOI: 10.1353/jer.2017.0015

Terri L. Snyder, Professor of American Studies
California State University, Fullerton

The Fight for Interracial Marriage Rights in Antebellum Massachusetts. By Amber D. Moulton. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 288. Cloth, $45.00.)

In this sharply focused study, Amber D. Moulton examines the battle to overturn the Massachusetts statute banning interracial marriage, originally enacted in 1705 and repealed in 1843, and offers a penetrating analysis of early arguments over the right to marry. Each chapter critically foregrounds existing studies of miscegenation law, and the epilogue usefully links the legal histories of interracial and same-sex marriage. Long before Loving v. Virginia (1967) or Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), some antebellum activists in Massachusetts argued that marriage was a constitutional right and an essential element of social and political equality. The claim of equal rights alone did not carry the day, however. As Moulton demonstrates, the most persuasive arguments against the law were rooted in appeals to moral reform rather than in demands for racial civil rights.

The Fight for Interracial Marriage Rights is a skillful blend of legal history and lived experience. In her first chapter, Moulton offers a history of the ban and analyzes its consequences for interracial families. Colonial Massachusetts, following the lead of the slave societies of the Caribbean and the Chesapeake, banned interracial marriage in 1705. The statute was expanded in scope and severity in 1786 and remained in place until 1843, when it was overturned. Despite the legal prohibition against interracial unions, women and men of different races continued to marry in Massachusetts. The legal ban was clear-cut in theory, but interracial couples pursued varying strategies in their marriage practices. Some couples gained the protection of legal marriage when they wed outside of Massachusetts and returned to the colony or state as husband and wife. If partners could not be legally married, they established informal unions and protected children through carefully delineated inheritance strategies. Others shunned the law altogether. However, once an informally married interracial couple came to the attention of the courts—particularly when they or their children petitioned for support—their union could be voided and their children declared illegitimate. Class was a clear factor: The poorest couples were more at risk for having their claims to wedlock invalidated. Moreover, the official ban on interracial marriages sometimes existed in opposition to local culture. At least some interracial couples who attained middling status appear to have been accepted in their neighborhoods.

Subsequent chapters investigate the range of advocates who fought against the ban on interracial marriage. In some of the more fascinating examples in her study, Moulton investigates and highlights the transmission of activist aims in African American families. In 1837, for instance, African American activists made the right to interracial marriage a plank on their antislavery platform; some of these activists were either spouses in or children born to interracial unions. The study is also strong in its analysis of gender. Regardless of race, women activists who opposed the ban were charged with indecency. Some opponents claimed that political petitioning in support of interracial marriage—and the racial mixing it implied—was anathema to white femininity. However, some women activists countered that interracial marriage protected women. Marriage, they argued, was a bulwark against licentiousness (which could lead to promiscuity and prostitution), provided the security of patriarchal family structure, and offered official legitimacy for children of these unions as well.

Rather than claims of equal rights, then, the most persuasive arguments in overturning interracial marriage prohibitions in Massachusetts were rooted in the values of traditional marriage and gender roles, patriarchal ideologies and feminine duty, and the importance of Christian morality. At the same time, unforeseen events, such as the Latimer case, which aroused indignation over southern demands that Boston’s officials hunt fugitive slaves, galvanized public opinion in favor of overturning the law. Ultimately, prohibiting interracial marriage was viewed as immoral, unconstitutional, and unjust, as well as a uniquely southern encroachment on individual freedom from which northerners wanted to distance themselves. Despite its innovation, however, Massachusetts did not become a model for the nation: Twenty years after that state legalized interracial marriage, over…

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Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade by Randy J. Sparks, and: Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It by James Ciment (review)

Posted in Africa, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery on 2014-12-03 17:37Z by Steven

Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade by Randy J. Sparks, and: Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled It by James Ciment (review)

Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 34, Number 4, Winter 2014
pages 686-690
DOI: 10.1353/jer.2014.0068

Andrew N. Wegmann
Louisiana State University

Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade. By Randy J. Sparks. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. 309. Cloth $29.95)

The Atlantic slave trade stands at the center of Atlantic World studies. Indeed, the centuries-long trade in human beings from the coast of Africa to the Americas and Europe has come to define how each society bordering the Atlantic explains its cultural and racial demographics. Tales of families torn apart for the profit of a white man, of countless numbers taken across the Atlantic and forced into the fields of Jamaica, South Carolina, and Virginia, have fascinated and frustrated scholars and readers for decades. But rarely have these stories looked back to their origins, situating Africa at the center of the trade and the Atlantic community that made it possible. In Where the Negroes Are Masters, Randy Sparks does just that.

The strength of Sparks’s work lies in its uncommon approach. By placing the West African town of Annamaboe at the heart of the Atlantic slave-trading world, he shifts the academic focus of the slave trade from American fields and British trading houses to a Gold Coast trading town in which Africans call the shots, make enormous profit, and interact as commercial equals with European slavers. Sparks does not mince words, claiming that “the successful, capable, and wily merchants of Annamaboe were as integral to Atlantic commerce as those of Liverpool, London, Cádiz, Nantes, Charleston, New York, or Kingston” (3). Ruled and ‘‘owned’’ by the Fante people, Annamaboe was a place of commercial as well as cultural exchange, a site where the colonial powers of Europe entered into agreements and treaties with the reportedly ‘‘savage,’’ ‘‘barbarous’’ blacks of Africa. It was a place to which England sent its youngest, brightest captains to serve as governors before they rose in the political ranks to North America and the Caribbean. In return, the leaders (called caboceers) of Annamaboe frequently sent their sons to London and Paris for education, trading experience, and acculturation.

But, as Sparks points out, this was all a game. The caboceers at Annamaboe knew that both England and France wanted the thousands of slaves leaving the coast each year. The young men sent to London and Paris from Annamaboe, like the famous William Ansah Sessarakoo, son of the powerful caboceer John Corantee, imbibed European culture while also acquiring an intimate knowledge of the European side of the trade— profit margins, active political disputes, anything the leaders at Annamaboe could use to outwit and manipulate their European buyers.

Indeed, on a number of occasions the French and English nearly came to blows over the right of deposit at Annamaboe Road, the town’s primary port. In the end, the English muscled the French out of the region, and constructed a fort in town, for which they paid tribute, rent, and customs duties.

The relationship between Africans and Europeans did not stop at the trade itself. English merchants, traders, and governors residing in town often took ‘‘country wives’’—African women, sometimes mixed-race, who provided relief of carnal urges as well as connections in Annamaboe’s merchant elite. Richard Brew, an Irish-born trader who arrived at Annamaboe around 1745, became the wealthiest, most powerful private trader on the Gold Coast due in part to his ‘‘marriage’’ to John Corantee’s daughter. They lived together at Brew’s Annamaboe mansion (called ‘‘Castle Brew’’), and raised three mulatto children, all of whom took their father’s surname and served as interpreters and traders for Annamaboe until the early nineteenth century. As Sparks explains, the mulattoes, of which there were many along the Gold Coast, bridged the cultural and racial gap manifested in their pedigrees. Some served as soldiers for the English aboard slavers and in forts, positions strictly reserved for the mixed-race sons of European officials. Others, like the Brew children, served as interpreters, political representatives, and port traders for the caboceers. Many were Christian. Nearly all spoke both English and Fante, as well as ‘‘creole’’ (which Sparks never fully defines), and dressed in European stylings. They were the products of the cultural and racial exchange that brought Annamaboe, and the rest of the Gold Coast, into the heart of the Atlantic World.

Although central to the commercial and cultural development of the Atlantic World, Sparks’s…

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Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (reweiw) [Watkins]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2014-06-01 17:38Z by Steven

Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia by Eva Sheppard Wolf (reweiw) [Watkins]

Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 33, Number 3, Fall 2013
pages 575-577
DOI: 10.1353/jer.2013.0062

Andrea S. Watkins

Wolf, Eva Sheppard, Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012)

The tenuous status of free blacks within antebellum Virginia is examined by Eva Sheppard Wolf through the life of Samuel Johnson, a slave who purchased his own freedom and struggled over the course of the rest of his life to free his family and keep them together. His attempts to work within the legal framework established by the state and his own connections to powerful Virginia citizens illustrates the nebulous place free blacks held within antebellum society, as well as the role of personal relationships between black and white residents in achieving freedom and prosperity.

Wolf, associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, has pieced together a story of Johnson’s adulthood and family life through local court records and Virginia legislative petitions. The specifics of Samuel Johnson’s birth are not known, but his identification as “mulatto” in records indicates he had a slave mother and white father. Wolf suggests that Johnson’s white father may have found his mulatto slave son work in Norris Tavern in Warrenton, Virginia, the county seat for Fauquier County. As a tavern servant Johnson had the opportunity to forge relationships with white members of the community who came to Warrenton for court business and to save tip money to purchase his freedom. Johnson entered an agreement with his owner Edward Digges in 1802 to purchase his freedom for five hundred dollars. Virginia law regarding manumission of slaves changed in 1806. The new law established that freed slaves must leave the state within one year of liberation. Johnson had a choice to either continue to save and purchase his freedom with the knowledge he must leave or remain enslaved. The decision was not an easy one as he was married with two children by 1811, when he had collected the five hundred dollars.

Johnson’s choice demonstrates the importance of personal relationships in understanding race relations in the antebellum period. Over time Johnson had established ties with important white men within Warrenton, Fauquier County, and beyond. He was known as a hard-working slave and was viewed by many as an asset to the community. To leave Fauquier County, or Virginia, was to face a life of uncertainty. Would he find such valuable work in another state or find a place in a new community equal to the one he had in Warrenton? Thus, Johnson chose to petition the state legislature to allow him to remain in Virginia and he enlisted the help of various white citizens as witnesses to his character. His petition was passed by the legislature, and eventually Samuel Johnson became a free man on August 25, 1812. The fact that Johnson called on white slave owners to attest to his hard work, character, and value to the community reveals how often the relationships between blacks and whites in the early nineteenth century do not match the rhetoric of speeches and legislation critical and fearful of the presence of free blacks.

Wolf recounts how in the following years Johnson purchased his wife and two children, but their position was precarious as they could be sold for payment of Johnson’s debts, and he could not free them without fear that officials would expel them from the state one year after manumission. Johnson submitted petition after petition to the state’s authorities requesting that his family be allowed to remain with him when freed, and again and again those petitions failed to pass. Wolf successfully portrays the frustrations of trying to navigate the legal system of the time, but also the high stakes for Johnson and his family if he acted without legal provision. Johnson’s resourcefulness in garnering support throughout the white community is evident in his 1826 petition for his daughter Lucy that had the signatures of 226 people including white women and two U.S. congressmen. Johnson successfully purchased a home and land on the edge of Warrenton, and the family established a comfortable lifestyle until his death in 1842. At that time only his daughter and her children were still living. Johnson had already freed Lucy, taking the chance that his own standing and her ties to the local community would forestall any attempts to have…

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Trading Races: Joseph and Marie Bunel, a Diplomat and a Merchant in Revolutionary Saint-Domingue and Philadelphia

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, Europe, History, New Media, United Kingdom, United States on 2010-08-23 18:15Z by Steven

Trading Races: Joseph and Marie Bunel, a Diplomat and a Merchant in Revolutionary Saint-Domingue and Philadelphia

Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 30, Number 3, Fall 2010
pages 351-376
E-ISSN: 1553-0620
Print ISSN: 0275-1275

Philippe R. Girard, Associate Professor of History
McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Based on extensive research in French, British, and U.S. archives, the article focuses on Joseph Bunel, a diplomatic and commercial envoy for Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and his wife Marie Bunel (Fanchette Estève), who spent her adult life as a merchant in Cap Français (Cap Haïtien) and Philadelphia. Joseph and Marie Bunel were a white Frenchman and a free black Creole, but their careers were shaped more by their social and monetary ambitions than by their racial background. After spending a few years in prerevolutionary Saint-Domingue (Haiti) as a merchant and a plantation manager, Joseph Bunel played an important administrative role in Louverture’s regime after 1798, first as a diplomatic envoy charged with drafting treaties of commerce and non-aggression with the United States and England during the Quasi-War, then as Louverture’s paymaster. Because of his closeness to the regime, he was deported to France during the Leclerc expedition. After moving to Philadelphia in 1803, he became a noted exporter of war contraband to Dessalines’ Haiti and in 1807 settled permanently in this country as a merchant. Marie Bunel, a prosperous free-colored merchant from Cap Français before the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution, continued her mercantile activities throughout the revolutionary period. Though personally close to notable figures like Louverture and Henri Christophe, her political involvement in the revolutionary struggle was limited. Persecuted along with her husband during the Leclerc expedition, she moved to Philadelphia, where she lived as an independent merchant long after Haiti had declared its independence. It was not until 1810 that for personal reasons she moved back to Haiti, where little evidence is available to retrace the end of the Bunels’ eventful lives.

Read or purchase the article here.

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