Jefferson's Freeholders and the Politics of Ownership in the Old Dominion

Overview

Jefferson's Freeholders explores the historical processes by which Virginia was transformed from a British colony into a Southern slave state. It focuses on changing conceptualizations of ownership and emphasizes the persistent influence of the English common law on Virginia's postcolonial political culture. The book explains how the traditional characteristics of land tenure became subverted by the dynamic contractual relations of a commercial economy and assesses the political consequences of the law reforms ...

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Jefferson's Freeholders and the Politics of Ownership in the Old Dominion

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Overview

Jefferson's Freeholders explores the historical processes by which Virginia was transformed from a British colony into a Southern slave state. It focuses on changing conceptualizations of ownership and emphasizes the persistent influence of the English common law on Virginia's postcolonial political culture. The book explains how the traditional characteristics of land tenure became subverted by the dynamic contractual relations of a commercial economy and assesses the political consequences of the law reforms that were necessitated by these developments. Nineteenth-century reforms seeking to reconcile the common law with modern commercial practices embraced new democratic expressions about the economic and political power of labor, and thereby encouraged the idea that slavery was an essential element in sustaining republican government in Virginia. By the 1850s, the ownership of human property had replaced the ownership of land as the distinguishing basis for political power with tragic consequences for the Old Dominion.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Christopher Curtis’s book is a remarkable and welcome hybrid, its research meticulous and exhaustive. Curtis’s judgments about the evidence are judicious and balanced. His arguments and conclusions are important and portable, for he demonstrates how the cultural and legal effects of commercial developments remapped Virginians’ understanding of the justification of popular political participation, and even of political legitimacy. The concluding chapter on a ‘new jurisprudence’ is a tour de force. Jefferson's Freeholders is a book for many seasons.” —Gerard V. Bradley, Unviersity of Notre Dame Law School

“In recent decades a number of talented scholars have greatly enriched our understanding of both the political and the legal history of the antebellum South. Most of these scholars, however, have concentrated on either the political or the legal rather than weaving together developments in both realms. Chris Curtis’s new book, Jefferson’s Freeholders and the Politics of Ownership in the Old Dominion, is the exception to the rule. In this rigorously argued study, Curtis details the manner in which changing conceptions of property and changes in the legal system at once underpinned and reinforced changes in politics and the political order in one key southern state. Curtis’s estimable scholarship will compel all students of southern history to rethink the material and moral bases upon which the region was grounded.” —Peter A. Coclanis, Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Christopher Michael Curtis’s Jefferson’s Freeholders and the Politics of Ownership in the Old Dominion is nothing short of seminal. It will compel the re-study of development of slave society not only in Virginia, but, with appropriate adjustments, for the Old South. Rarely do we find legal, intellectual, and economic history so well integrated and graced by such penetrating insight. The implications of the shif in the nature of property relations illuminate the evolution of the yeomanry as readily as they do that of the planters.” —Eugene D. Genovese, co-author with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of The Mind of the Master Class, Slavery in White and Black, and Fatal Self-Deception

“This book is impressive from various perspectives. Chris Curtis has written an engaging historical treatise on Virginian property relations and law from colonial days to the ante-bellum era. He adroitly demonstrates how local legal history provides a window into law and legal change regionally, nationally and internationally, in the Common Law world. Moreover, by tapping political, economic and social records he has produced a rich narrative of the changing imperatives of political thought and action and economic realities that influenced the development of local law in this slave holding jurisdiction, and explain its inner contradictions. This book merits a broad readership.” —John McLaren, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Victoria

“Christopher Curtis’s provocative new book is a welcome addition to the literature on Revolutionary and antebellum Virginia. Focusing on land law, Jefferson’s Freeholders charts the Old Dominion’s progress from the agrarian commonwealth Jefferson envisioned in 1776 to the slave-based democracy of the 1851 state constitution. White manhood suffrage marked both the triumph of democracy in Virginia and Virginia’s emergence as a slave state committed to the peculiar institution’s perpetuation. Curtis’s smart and original study deserves a wide readership.” —Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia, author of Jefferson’s Empire: The Language of American Nationhood

"Essential." -Choice

"The great strength of this book derives from its interwoven analysis of statutes, litigation, politics, and political theory." Turk McCleskey, Virginia Magazine

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Christopher Michael Curtis serves as the Department Head for the Department of History at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. He is a former Marine Infantry Officer and was appointed by Governor Haley to serve as a Commissioner for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. He previously held appointments at Claflin University, Iowa State University and the State University of West Georgia. His work has appeared in the Journal of Southern History, the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and Legal History.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: the tragedy of ownership; Part I. Renovatio: 2. Taking notice of an error; 3. The chosen people of God; Part II. Reformatio: 4. An invidious and anti-Republican test; 5. Can these be the sons of their fathers?; 6. Doubt seems to have arisen; 7. A new system of jurisprudence; Part III. Conclusion: Reaction.

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