Legislating Proslavery Ideology: The Texas Self-Enslavement Law of 1858

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 3:10 PM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
John Garrison Marks, Rice University
Legislating Proslavery Ideology: The Texas Self-Enslavement Law of 1858

          In 1858 the Texas legislature passed an act allowing free blacks to enslave themselves, two decades after they demanded the expulsion of free blacks from the state. The disparity between the content of and response to these two laws provides a unique lens for viewing the role of community, reputation, and interracial interaction in the story of free blacks in antebellum Texas.

          As in other southern states, Texas’s free black expulsion law was largely inoperative.  White communities rallied around the free black individuals with whom they had significant social interactions through petitions to the legislature highlighting their positive character.  Despite legislative prohibitions, free blacks had significant relationships with both whites and blacks within their local community, occasionally taking white men to court, and winning, when questions over their legal status arose.  Despite the wishes of the legislature, the expulsion law could not overcome the bonds of community that free blacks established with whites through community interaction and positive reputation.

          Texas’s self-enslavement law appears quite different when viewed in conjunction with this ineffective expulsion law.  Many historians have viewed self-enslavement laws as an indication of free blacks’ deteriorating social position in southern communities during the 1850s; this paper challenges that thesis, arguing that the state legislature’s inability to affect the position of free blacks at the local level, the rarity with which free blacks engaged in self-enslavement, and because the law received little mention in the press, its passage speaks more to white anxieties about the availability and price of slave labor and their desire to re-open the African slave trade.  Texas’s legislators seemed to have wanted to provide themselves with more options, however desperate, for increasing the state’s slave labor force, as they felt the institution becoming increasingly besieged in the 1850s.

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