It’s been a long time since I’ve done a BookTalk, and I really need to get a move on so that I can start reading the other books on my list. I like to write about, take notes on, and draw my thoughts about what I read. Lucky you, that means you get to read a few more posts about the book, They were her property (Jones-Rogers, 2019). In my last summary, I shared author Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ description of the developmental process by which white women learned to be slaveholders. In Chapter 2, “I belong to de Mistis”, Jones-Rogers follows up on her assertion that married women were just as engaged and invested in the slave trade as their husbands were by demonstrating how they used the legal system to maintain the wealth they had amassed through slaveholding.
I recently started learning French, but I had never heard of the term couverture until starting this chapter. It looked to me like a cognate of the word cover in English or cobertura in Spanish. Indeed, couverture involved the concept that a newly married woman came under the metaphorical covering wing of her husband and thus forfeited any previously held rights as an independent individual. Subsequently, a wife was prevented from “engaging in commercial endeavors in her own name and without her husband’s permission” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 25). While the rules of couverture established a standard in which a man protected his wife by managing and governing her economic affairs, what really happened in those days was a much different matter. Often due to their incompetence or indebtedness,”not only were many husbands not ‘covering’ their wives under their wings in the ways that [the English jurist] Blackstone indicated, they were robbing their wives, squandering their assets, and violating their property rights” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 43).
Aware of the risks to wealth that marriage entailed, wives and their family members often took measures beforehand to ensure that their husbands would not misuse, neglect, or abuse their property, including slaves. Some wives prepared prenuptial agreements and contracts before entering a marriage, while others arranged for postnuptial agreements to be signed, in which they outlined how they expected their slaves to be managed and treated. Additionally, family members, both male and female, drew up legal documents stipulating that the bequeathed property could only be managed by the female recipient, regardless of any law that might provide a husband special rights. The donor(s) often instructed that, in the case of the female recipient’s demise, the property be awarded to her children and not her husband.
Far from being as powerless as I had assumed women were in those days, “women acquired and maintained legal ties to enslaved persons, and they were willing to bring spouses, kin, and others into chancery courts in order to protect their economic interests” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 45). Should a husband try to circumvent the intentions specified by legal documents prepared before marriage, the wife either ignored or sued him. Moreover, if a woman risked forfeiture of her personal enslaved property due to a husband’s financial mismanagement of his own debts, she would sue the creditors in order to protect her financial wealth. The author observed that these women not only took men to court over their slaves, they often won.
The ability of slaveholding women to use the legal system and social infrastructure to assert and maintain their status as property owners prove that society recognized their rights, too. They were able to do a number of things of their own agency, without their husband’s permission, including hiring slave catchers to recover their runaway slaves and placing newspaper ads about the sale, purchase, or capture of slaves. They were recognized as slave owners in census documents and tax rolls; in court when seeking judgments or relief; in the community (e.g., when they sent their slaves to workhouses to be punished for misdeeds); and in seeking advice from relatives and neighbors or appointing them as trustees.
My own curiosity was piqued when the author explained that in Louisiana, married women sometimes sued for a separation of property by proving “that their husbands’ pecuniary affairs, fiscal management, or economic circumstances jeopardized their own property and economic well-being” (Jones-Rogers, 2019, p. 35). I remembered that one of my ancestors of color, Silesie Pierre-Auguste, used this strategy when she took her husband, John Chevis, to court in 1841. According to Race and Slavery Petitions Project (Petition 20884114 Details, n.d.), Pierre-Auguste was not a slaveholder when she first married, but she did own horses, horned cattle, breeding cows, and household furniture. Alleging that Chevis’ financial practices endangered her own financial security, Pierre-Auguste requested that her property be separated and that she be allowed to manage her “paraphernal property free from [his] constraint or interference” (Petition 20884114 Details, n.d.). Celeste’s petition was dismissed in 1844, but obviously she had rights that she was compelled and felt entitled to exercise.
This chapter was a little bit more difficult to push through, I must admit. That’s probably one reason it took me so long to write about it. Ultimately, I was glad to learn about the legal doctrine of couverture and how white, slaveholding women were able to undermine its practice and use the social, cultural, and economic realities of the slave trade to their benefit.
Jones-Rogers, S.E. (2019). They were her property: white women as slave owners in the American South. Yale University Press.
Petition 20884114 Details. (n.d.). Race and Slavery Petitions Projects. https://library.uncg.edu/slavery/ petitions/details.aspx?pid=8161
Tebbs, R. (1926). Chretien Point Plantation [Photograph]. Louisiana Digital Library. https://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/lsm-rtc%3A218