The best books on crime and punishment in the Antebellum South

The Books I Picked & Why

Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South

By Edward L. Ayers

Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South

Why this book?

This is a classic, pioneering study of the major elements of southern crime and punishment at a time that saw the formation of the fundamental patterns of class and race—and how they shaped the South’s criminal justice system.  Ayers studies the inner workings of the police, prison, and judicial systems, and the nature of crime, while at the same time adeptly linking the antebellum with the post-bellum criminal justice system. 


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Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

By Bertram Wyatt-Brown

Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

Why this book?

No book was more fundamental in shaping and revolutionizing our understanding of the mores and values of the Antebellum South than Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor. Using legal documents, letters, diaries, and newspaper columns, this book reveals how the South’s honor system shaped and influenced how southerners lived, worked, and fought with one another. “Primal Honor” also influenced the way that Southerners made, enforced, or did not enforce the law.  Southern men adopted an ancient honor code that shaped their society from top to bottom. By claiming honor and dreading shame, they controlled their slaves, ruled their households, established the social rankings of themselves, kinfolk, and neighbors, and responded ferociously against perceived threats. Honor required men to demonstrate their prowess and engage in fierce defense of the individual, family, community, and regional reputation by duel, physical encounter, or war. Subordination of African-Americans was uppermost in this Southern ethic. Any threat, whether from the slaves themselves or from outside agitation, had to be met forcefully. Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, but, according to Wyatt-Brown, honor pulled the trigger.


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Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia's Criminal Justice System

By Glenn McNair

Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia's Criminal Justice System

Why this book?

Of the many books that explore African-Americans’ experience in the South’s antebellum Criminal Justice System this work stands out.  In this comprehensive study of the criminal justice system of a slave state. Glenn McNair traces the evolution of Georgia’s legal culture by examining its use of slave codes and slave patrols, as well as presenting data on crimes prosecuted, trial procedures and practices, conviction rates, the appellate process, and punishment. Based on more than four hundred capital cases, McNair’s study deploys both narrative and quantitative analysis to get at both the theory and the reality of the criminal procedure for slaves in the century leading up to the Civil War.


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American Homicide

By Randolph Roth

American Homicide

Why this book?

In this comprehensive study of homicide in America, Randolph Roth charts changes in the character and incidence of homicide in the U.S. from colonial times to the present. The book is particularly strong in addressing the South’s penchant for violence. In readable fashion, Roth argues that the United States, especially the South, is distinctive in its level of violence among unrelated adults―friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  Roth notes that the homicide rate rose substantially among unrelated adults in the slave South after the American Revolution; and it skyrocketed across the United States from the late 1840s through the mid-1870s, while rates in most other Western nations held steady or fell. That surge―and all subsequent increases in the homicide rate―correlated closely with four distinct phenomena: political instability; a loss of government legitimacy; a loss of fellow-feeling among members of society caused by racial, religious, or political antagonism; and a loss of faith in the social hierarchy. Those four factors, Roth argues, best explain why homicide rates have gone up and down in the United States and in other Western nations over the past four centuries, and why the United States is today the most homicidal affluent nation.


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Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865

By Philip J. Schwarz

Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865

Why this book?

Philip J. Schwarz’s Twice Condemned adeptly analyzes the history of enslaved African Americans' relationship with the criminal courts of the Old Dominion from roughly 1700 to the end of the Civil War.  Based on over four thousand trials from the colonial, early national, and antebellum periods, no other book does such a comprehensive job of analyzing the prevalence, longevity, and variety of behavior attributed to slave convicts. This book also provides a detailed picture of how one slave society evolved, and along the way, it uncovers previously unexamined aspects of slave culture, and of slave owners' attitudes toward the "domestic enemy" in their midst.  Schwarz argues that the judicial system for slaves served two purposes: it helped slave owners control slaves and enabled authorities to sanction criminal behavior. This dual function of slave trials mirrored the two kinds of slaves' behavior judges tried to suppress.

When focused on slave resistance, this study illuminates some of the many ways black Virginians were able to confront the seemingly overwhelming power of the white society that enslaved them. Twice Condemned provides a fascinating portrayal of slave culture and slave resistance to white society not only as a means of resistance against oppression but as a means of individual empowerment.


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