Double Character
Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom

Ariela J. Gross

"Moves the study of slave law beyond the traditional notion that the civil law of slavery concerned slaves only as property and not as people."-Journal of American History


"Gross adds depth and complexity to our understanding of slavery's social and cultural framework, and of the tensions and contradictions slavery created in its American setting. . . . She provides valuable insight into the uses of paternalism as a perspective for understanding slavery and even into the professionalization of medicine, as it grew out of the requirements of southern slave law."
American Historical Review

"A fascinating journey inside slave trials of the antebellum Deep South . . . Gross weaves an intricate tale, and, unusually for some historians, her methodology is fully articulated on both the statistical and historiographical planes. . . . What will make this book even more interesting for social, intellectual, and cultural historians is Gross's ability to demystify what might normally be considered intricate and complicated about the law. . . . It is a pleasure to read a legal history that fuses hard statistical data to sophisticated intellectual and cultural history arguments, while maintaining the readability that allows non-lawyers access to the technical side of courtrooms."
Reviews in American History

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This groundbreaking study of the law and culture of slavery in the antebellum Deep South takes readers into local courtrooms where people settled their civil disputes over property. Buyers sued sellers for breach of warranty when they considered slaves to be physically or morally defective; owners sued supervisors who whipped or neglected slaves under their care.

How, asks Ariela J. Gross, did communities reconcile the dilemmas such trials raised concerning the character of slaves and masters? Although slaves could not testify in court, their character was unavoidably at issue--and so their moral agency intruded into the courtroom. In addition, says Gross, "wherever the argument that black character depended on management by a white man appeared, that white man's good character depended on the demonstration that bad black character had other sources."

This led, for example, to physicians testifying that pathologies, not any shortcomings of their master, drove slaves to became runaways. Gross teases out other threads of complexity woven into these trials: the ways that legal disputes were also affairs of honor between white men; how witnesses and litigants based their views of slaves' character on narratives available in the culture at large; and how law reflected and shaped racial ideology. Combining methods of cultural anthropology, quantitative social history, and critical race theory, Double Character brings to life the law as a dramatic ritual in people's daily lives, and advances critical historical debates about law, honor, and commerce in the American South.

Southern Legal Studies

Page count: 280 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $29.95

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Ariela J. Gross is a professor of law and history at the University of Southern California, where she is also codirector of the Center for Law, History, and Culture.