Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century By Tera W. Hunter
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2017, 404 pp., $29.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Franke
The institution of marriage is asked to do an awful lot of work in most societies. It is used by couples to signal serious commitment, care, and love. It provides the social, economic, and legal structure for adult sexuality and the family, legitimizing those who enter its territory. Marriage also establishes the dominant rules of dependency and responsibility among adults and their children. And marriage serves as a useful means by which society makes distributional choices, such as allocating health insurance, tax preferences, property ownership, and other transfers of wealth. In its 1888 Maynard v. Hill decision, the US Supreme Court reflected the vital role that marriage plays in society when it ruled that marriage is “the foundation of the family and society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”
But even more fundamentally, the capacity to marry has served historically as a social and legal endorsement of a person’s full humanity. Time and again the Supreme Court has found that laws limiting the right to marry interfere with fundamental notions of personhood, whether it denied the right to marry to incarcerated people, lesbian and gay people, disabled people, or interracial couples.
Historian Tera Hunter’s new book, Bound in Wedlock, shows how the dehumanization of enslaved people in the United States was normalized through the institution of marriage. Bound in Wedlock is a detailed, careful, and comprehensive mapping of the role of marriage in the enslavement and emancipation of black people in the US in the nineteenth century.
Hunter is no newcomer to the painstaking work of assembling a complex narrative out of the seemingly random data points of a rich historical archive. In her first book, To ́Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (1998), Hunter provided a stunningly detailed account of the role of work in newly emancipated women’s experience of freedom between the Civil War and World War I. As Hunter tells it, her subjects did not become free through legal documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment; rather they actualized their own freedom through a range of performances of self-ownership in and through wage-based work. To ̓Joy My Freedom marks a paradigm shift in the history of freedom in the US. It moved beyond the canonical accounts at the time of Herbert Gutman, Eric Foner, and Kenneth Stampp by foregrounding gender and focusing on Black women as stewards of their own emancipation—under conditions, of course, of enormous constraint. Hunter was joined by the historians Laura Edwards, Noralee Frankel, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Brenda Stevenson, and Deborah Gray White, among others, in documenting the domestic lives of enslaved people in ways that refused an appeal to stock characters or totalizing stories that either cast negative judgment on or romanticized the agency of enslaved people.
With this new book, Hunter provides a well-woven synthesis of others’ work on marriage, together with her own significant archival rendering of the ways in which both enslaved and freed black people solemnized their intimate relationships in marriage. The book contributes to the growing body of work that illuminates how marriage became, curiously, a container for both enslaved life and for freedom.
Of course, enslaved people could not legally marry, as marriage is a legal contract and enslaved people—legally considered property—did not have the capacity to form such contracts. Nevertheless, as many scholars have documented, enslaved people married outside the law. Their marriages were sacred and recognized before their god and their community, although not before their owners or the law. These marriages were every bit as “peculiar” as the institution of slavery within which they were nested. The first chapters of Bound in Wedlock provide some new examples and contexts for the well-known phenomenon of owners breaking up the marriages and families of enslaved people. These owners cared not at all about their slaves’ familial attachments—and love—as they made decisions about trading them as they might any other chattel.
Hunter also reveals the double binds spouses experienced in mixed marriages—that is, marriages between enslaved and free black people—in the antebellum period. Against a backdrop of overwhelming precarity, enslaved people did their best to preserve the integrity of their marriages and families; some freed spouses actually sold themselves back into slavery in order to remain close to their loved ones. This tragic necessity was motivated by laws that required emancipated black people to move out of the state in which they were freed. Uneasy slaveholders feared that the presence of former slaves would provide a bad example to the people they held in bondage and pushed for laws that would eliminate black people unbound to a white owner from the communities surrounding their plantations.
Perhaps the best example—though not one included in Hunter’s telling—of the perverse incentives created by these laws was embodied in George Washington’s will. Washington wanted to free his slaves upon his death, but he was reluctant to do so because many of his slaves had married slaves owned by his wife Martha—and the law of dower (which required him to provide for his widow in the event of his death) did not permit him to free her slaves as well. Further, if George’s slaves were set free upon his death, they would be required to flee the Commonwealth of Virginia, thus breaking up married couples and families. “To emancipate them during her life,” he wrote,
would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter.
George solved the problem in his will by giving Martha 123 of his 124 slaves, with the proviso that they be freed upon her death, thus (advertently or inadvertently, we do not know) putting a price on her head.
The underlying question upon which Bound in Wedlock rests is whether matrimony and slavery can coexist. While there were certainly contexts in which enslaved peoples’ interests in maintaining the integrity of their kinship relationships was coextensive with their owners’ interests in maximizing profit, maintaining a compliant labor force, or upholding their religious values, these felicities were mere coincidence, not necessity. Property law, not that of family or religion, provided the overarching structure for relationships among enslaved people, and between owners and the people they enslaved. Although both marriage and slavery created status relationships, when those statuses came into conflict, the status of being property always trumped the status of being a spouse.
Hunter’s study of marriage extends beyond the antebellum period to document the afterlife of slavery in the married lives of freed people up to the end of the nineteenth century. She describes a liminal state in which Black people were trapped between slavery and complete freedom, and how the right to marry figured in that racial entrapment. Cynical enforcement of fornication, adultery, and bigamy laws imposed a kind of racial discipline on newly freed people in the postbellum period.
Reviewing a valuable book like Bound in Wedlock presents a challenge for historians like me, who have written on this topic and have spent a great deal of time in some of the same archives. Marriage, slavery, and freedom are complex institutions amenable to many thoughtful readings.
The postbellum experience of marriage by formerly enslaved people goes to the core of what I termed in my book Wedlocked (2015) “freed-dom,” that is, the condition of being freed but not fully free. Freedom, it turns out, is a racialized term, something enjoyed fully in the United States only by white people. The badge of inferiority that marked black people as enslaveable persisted long after emancipation and licensed all manner of racial terror. For the most part, marriage provided a new opportunity for white society to elaborate that inferiority and terror rather than mitigate its violence. In my own work I portray this as the predictable result of a politics of liberation that looks to state regulation as key to freedom. Marriage rights, I argue, merely inaugurate a new regulatory relationship with the state, one amenable to cooptation by those who cling to the durability, if not truth, of white supremacy. Hunter’s book, by contrast, is animated by a refreshingly romantic view of marriage; she argues that the passionate and kin-based ties of formerly enslaved people persisted, notwithstanding the violence of the state and white society operationalized through the law of marriage.
Bound in Wedlock suggests a set of hard questions that arise in the settings where two foundational nineteenth-century institutions meet: matrimony and white supremacy. As Hunter notes at the close of the book, the forces that frustrated freed peoples’ efforts to achieve human flourishing through matrimony in the nineteenth century remain intact today. A social and legal landscape saturated with notions of racial inferiority deprived freed people of the security and dignity that matrimony promised to white couples.
Hunter concludes her monograph with the recognition that today African Americans marry at rates far below those of white people. Echoing the arguments made by Ralph Banks in Is Marriage for White People? (2011), Hunter attributes this disparity not only to the enduring effects of racism but also to the ways in which marriage no longer serves as the institutional family form for achieving economic security. The low marriage rate among African Americans is a kind of canary in a coal mine, she argues, for larger societal trends in marriage rates. For African Americans and for low income whites “[m]arriage is seen as something you do after you have established your material foundation in life, not as a means to building up from it,” she concludes. Ending with insights relevant to the current moment, Hunter observes that economic and social equality are the preconditions for enjoying the dignity and agency that marriage can provide, and that oppressed groups, such as formerly enslaved people or same-sex couples, cannot expect marriage to deliver dignity and well-being on its own.
I take a more critical view of marriage altogether. Hunter sees the crisis of marriage for African Americans as rooted in preexisting racial and economic status inequalities, thus letting marriage off the hook as the institutional site that generates its own status inequalities worthy of critical concern—particularly for African Americans. While gay people have had astonishing success in deploying the right to marry in a larger campaign of rebranding homosexuality as decent rather than disgusting, and respectable rather than repulsive, marriage remains a site of failure for African Americans. For African Americans, marriage has reinforced racial inferiority and reinscribed a toxic badge of inferiority. Recent Republican statements about the need for welfare reform have revived racist—and false—notions of “welfare queens” and other unwed women of color living on public assistance. Even the Obama administration endorsed the notion that low marriage rates among African Americans and absent black fathers (rather than the mass incarceration of black men) explained a wide range of “pathologies” in the black community.
Rather than see the low rates of marriage in the black community as a problem in need of fixing, or worse, as the cause of all manner of social ills, I see the complexity of kinship relations among black people as a virtue—evidence of resilience to be honored rather than of degeneracy to be repaired. The same may be said of the lesbian and gay community as well—the complex forms of attachment, care, love, and responsibility that we formed when we were banned from the institution of marriage were not malformations that grew out of necessity during an era of now-repudiated oppression. Rather, queer kinship provides a model for all people—queer and straight alike—that in many cases enables human flourishing, security, and happiness far better than the nuclear, marital family.
Like the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry, Bound in Wedlock succumbs to the sanctification of marriage. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell,
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
Yet a marriage can be one of the loneliest places on earth. When it comes to writing the history of marriage, it is vitally important to foreground the role of white supremacy in devastating the family lives of African Americans, yet it is also crucial that in doing so we resist the impulse to sanctify the innocence of marriage itself.
Notwithstanding our different takes on these issues, Tera Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock makes a significant contribution to our understanding of slavery, of marriage, and to the contemporary implications of that history.
Katherine Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, and chair of the board of trustees of the Center for Constitutional Rights. She is the author of Wedlocked: The Perils of Marriage Equality (2015).