Book Review, Review of Family Money: Property, Race, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century (Jeffory A. Clymer)

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Book Review

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American Historical Review







In Family Money: Property, Race, and Literature in the Nineteenth Century, Jeffory A. Clymer explores the complex interactions of race, gender, intimacy, and property rights in the antebellum and post–Civil War era. Drawing on contemporary legal decisions and novels, he analyzes how bans on slave marriages, anti-miscegenation laws, and racial classification schemes influenced not just the emotional lives but also the material well-being of those in interracial relationships. These relationships challenged the precepts of a segregated society that equated whiteness with wealth, power, and freedom and blackness with poverty, dependency, and captivity. Although Clymer's focus is on the South, he considers this history of national significance because the slave economy also built fortunes in the North. Clymer argues that the wealth divide created by these laws persists today as evidenced by the ongoing, substantial gap in black and white inheritances.

At the heart of Clymer's book are fascinating questions about the meaning not only of race but also of love, marriage, and family. For instance, dozens of slave owners sought to bequeath estates to their black mistresses and their children. These men worried that after their deaths no one would protect these families, which existed outside the law. When the wills were contested, courts faced a dilemma because the cases pitted the “white man's absolute right to do as he wished with his property” against “the paramount and twinned equivalencies of Southern culture—white equals owner and black equals commodity” (p. 22). Southern judges resolved the conflict by emphasizing that “the family itself was gravely threatened” and had to be “defended … by making family, whiteness, and Americanness both synonymous and exclusionary” (p. 23). Courts embraced the rhetoric of family values, but novelists made clear that commerce played a decisive role in efforts to police the color line. As one character asks in Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends (1857), “Why can't he act … like other men who happen to have half-white children—breed them up for the market, and sell them?” (p. 31).

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The American Historical Association