Vengeance and Justice

Vengeance and Justice

By Steven Hahn

Vol. 7, No. 2, 1985, pp. 22-24

Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century South. By Edward L. Ayers. Oxford University Press, 1984.384 pp. $24.95

The glass and steel that now form the skylines over Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Houston, Greensboro, and a good many smaller cities may symbolize the South’s new found cosmopolitanism, but the recent spate of executions in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia reminds us of the cultural peculiarities that began to distinguish the region by the early nineteenth century and still manage to leave their imprints. The code duello, lynch law, the convict lease, and the county chain gang have of course, passed from the scene. Yet, in the incidence of violence and the meting out of harsh justice the South continues to hold invidious distinctions: the highest homicide and assault rates, the greatest number of handguns, and the most inmates on death row. This is a nation experiencing unprecedented rates of violent crime and renewed acceptance of capital punishment.

The apparent continuity of Southern distinctiveness of these regards cannot fail to impress. It should not, however, obscure significant changes in the nature and conceptualization of crime and punishment, particularly during the 19th century as the South moved from slavery to freedom. For it is in the very changes that the meaning of Southern distinctiveness may be discovered. So Edward Ayers, a talented young historian at the University of Virginia, suggests, and his new book, Vengeance and Justice takes us far along the route of discovery.

The route is difficult and treacherous, replete with wart paths, false leads, and blind alleys. Much is shrouded in the haze of myth and shibboleth. Ayers is mindful of the dangers and respectful of those who have made the journey before him. Nonetheless, he pushes ahead boldly and ambitiously, shedding fresh light on older trails while charting many new ones. His scope is at once regional and local, sweeping across the Southern states and then focusing in upon three different areas of Georgia so as to explore patterns of crime and punishment in considerable detail: Greene County in the Black Belt; Whitfield County in the Upcountry; and Chatham County along the coast and dominated by the city of Savannah.

Ayers begins with the antebellum period and an examination of the social and cultural underpinnings of Southern violence and justice. Like Bertram Wyatt-Brown before him, he finds a system of honor-wherein one’s own worth was determined by the judgment of the community -to be the prevailing field of force, encouraging extremes of behavior, acute sensitivity to insult, and personalized settlement of disputes. Unlike Wyatt-Brown, he situates honor within a specific grid of social relations while recognizing the strong countervailing currents produced by the South’s links to the increasingly bourgeois North and the increasingly important market economy. Honor, Ayers

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reminds us, thrived historically in hierarchical, economically undiversified, and localistically-oriented societies, and its roots in the South would have withered, as they had withered in the North, were it not for slavery. More than anything else, the master-slave relationship helped insulate the South from the economic and cultural forces associated with the alternative system of dignity and self-worth. But the insulation was never complete, and although traditional patterns of crime and punishment persisted in many areas up to the Civil War, Southern states began to build penitentiaries and white Southerners began to debate the issue of institutional confinement in a language of republicanism that touched the entire nation.

Ayers highlights the parameters of continuity and change in his meticulously researched local studies, where he utilizes quantitative and literary evidence. Thus, in the rural plantation and nonplantation counties, violent crime loomed largest, relatively few cases went to trial, and convicted offenders normally received fines as penalties. Defendants, for the most part, came from middling economic ranks and if they had not committed an act of violence it was likely that their offenses involved drinking, gambling, or sexual misconduct. Indeed, fluctuations in the “crime rate”had little to do with the cycles of the marketplace and a good deal to do with various campaigns against “immorality.” Crimes against property-ever pronounced in the North- were rare, but at the same time punished most severely: of the few rural offenders sent to the state penitentiary, the majority had committed property crimes. The affected parties, of course, were white and usually male; slaves were subjected to plantation justice lest their offenses were capital or committed off the plantation when the state stepped in and, significantly, devoted careful attention to proper procedure. Significantly, too, when cases involving slaves reached the courts, the conviction rates were about the same as for whites.

In antebellum cities such as Savannah, where ties to the market economy and bourgeois world were more extensive, the dimensions of crime came nearer to approximating the North. White offenders tended to be outsiders, often immigrants, from the poorer classes; property crime proved more common; authorities resorted to the penitentiary more frequently; and the onset of economic depression, as in the late 1850s, triggered a dramatic rise in incarceration rates. Still the majority appearing before the local courts had committed an act of violence, testimony to the power and pervasiveness of the South’s code of honor.

If Savannah anticipated some of the vectors of social change, the Civil War and Reconstruction propelled them forward while giving them a distinctive aspect. With the bonds of enslavement severed, black people entered, however ambiguously, the South’s civil society; and the relations of the marketplace spread, however haltingly, through the region. With the plantation system in disarray, landowners surrounded private property with newly defined and sharpened hedges so as to limit the economic alternatives available to ex-slaves. The result was a rather different “configuration of crime and punishment,” yet one that would “endure for generations to come.” The ebb and flow of crime, in town and country alike, came to follow the fortunes of the economy, with a considerable surge evident during the depression ridden 1870s. Offenses against property furthermore, became increasingly common, and defendants in the plantation counties were now overwhelmingly black. Finally, institutional confinement, especially for the swelling number of convicted black offenders, emerged as the first rather than last resort.

The numbers soon overtook the institutions, however, and although Southern legislatures planned to build larger penitentiaries, county and state officials looked for alternatives to the already crowded jails. They eventually found one in the convict lease. But as Ayers demonstrates in an excellent chapter-length account, there was nothing automatic or inevitable about the rise of the lease, and its early history was filled with irony. Indeed, while many Southern states turned to the lease as a temporary expedient, blacks as well as whites, Republicans as well as Democrats, share some responsibility for perpetuating it. The 1860s and 1870s saw “cautious experimentation,” as leases ran for relatively short periods and convicts worked chiefly as agricultural and railroad laborers. By the 1870s and 1880s, the lease’s moorings had been firmed and convict labor concentrated most heavily in mining, particularly in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. Handsome profits there were, both

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for the state governments and the lessees.

Yet Ayers perceptively views the lease as more than one of the many parvenu schemes befitting the “great barbecue”; he views it as an integral part of the larger transition from slave to capitalist social relations. For in the South, as in other post-emancipation societies, various forms of forced labor bridged the path from the old order to the new. It required a lengthy campaign on the part of free workers and the urban middle classes before the lease was laid to rest; even then the death throes were protracted and the legacy ambiguous.

Ayers concludes his study with a close consideration of the vigilante violence-lynching and whitecapping-that swept the Black Belt and Upcountry during the 1880s and 1890s. Reluctant to “over-explain,” he nonetheless sees the contradictory intersection of honor, republicanism, and the market provoking a social crisis. Intensifying white dread of black men violating white women did reflect the premium that honor placed upon female chastity, male virility, and the integrity of the patriarchal household. But by the 1880s a new generation of whites and blacks eyed each other across an ever-widening chasm, adding fears born of ignorance to the deeper fears born of the tenuous social balance that had characterized relatively insulated and hierarchical communities. Lynching harked to the tradition of retribution and public humiliation, and it was no accident that black victims were often considered outsiders by both races in a particular neighborhood. The great upsurge in lynchings, however, also dramatized the disintegration of relations and norms that had given the antebellum system of honor some structure of order. And it was not simply a question of race, for the increasing penetration of the market into white counties turned the wrath of communities against whites who violated local custom or represented the intrusive forces of the outside world, whether they be Mormons or federal revenue agents. If slavery served as the foundation of Southern distinctiveness before the war, the gradual and peculiar transition to capitalist relations continued to set the region apart. Jettisoned by the educated middle class, honor and its code of vengeance were perpetuated during the twentieth century by smalltown folk, and the lower classes, white and black.

Vengeance and Justice is at its weakest in examining the legal re-definition of crime after the Civil War and the very specific social contexts in which “crimes,” as distinguished from general acts of violent retribution, occurred. We learn relatively little about what Ayers acknowledges to be a wide-ranging process whereby the law mediated the transformation of social and property relations: changing patterns of crime provide evidence more of the impact than of the substance and historical meaning of the transformation. At the same time, we do not get much of a feel for the subjects or circumstances in the story; we are, by and large, offered aggregate statistics instead. It should be said, of course, that the court records leave much to be desired in this regard and Ayers has done an impressive job simply in compiling the cases. Nonetheless, given the challenging insights into the social dimensions of crime that have come, most notably, from recent studies of sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century Europe, Ayers could have culled a bit more even from his limited resources. That he did not do so in part reflects some of the book’s thematic ambiguity: Vengeance and Justice is both about more and about less than crime and punishment in the nineteenth century South.

Shortcomings aside, Edward Ayers has written a book of enormous interest and genuine importance. His work contributes compellingly to the debate over the character of the South and the transition from slavery to freedom, and will serve as an indispensable guide for students who wish to pursue the many lines of inquiry that Ayers has opened up. Without question Vengeance and Justice helps to raise the discussion of Southern distinctiveness and the South’s painful legacies to a new level of sophistication.

Steve Hahn teaches history at the University of California at San Diego. He is author of The Roots of Southern Populism. (Oxford Univ. Press, 1983).