AuthorFarbman, Daniel

Introduction 772 I. The Plantation as Local Government 777 A. The County Court System - The Standard Account 777 B. The Ordered Plantation 780 C. The Designed Plantation 784 D. The Plantation as Local Government 786 II. Plantation Localism's Shadow 787 Conclusion 795 INTRODUCTION

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, 32% of the people living in the Southern portion of the United States were enslaved (1)--a total of nearly four million human beings. (2) In South Carolina and Mississippi, enslaved people accounted for more than half of the population while in many other southern states they made up more than a third of the population. (3) Even in states like Virginia and Tennessee, where the ratios were not so high, there were hundreds of thousands of enslaved people living, laboring, and struggling as part of the populace. (4) Below the state level, the data paints an even more striking portrait. In some counties where large plantations dominated, enslaved people accounted for more than 80% of the population. (5) Even where the numbers were not so stark, in many, many counties across the entirety of the South, there were more enslaved residents than free. (6) Taken together, these numbers tell a story that is both obvious and unfamiliar: enslaved people were an integral part of the populace of the antebellum American South.

These numbers are not novel in our current political consciousness. The scale and scope of the moral atrocity of slavery is not a revelation (though the effort to forget it remains a powerful political project). (7) Still, our tendency has been to understand the reality of slavery as outside of government. Enslaved people were treated as property under the formalities of state law, while their enslavers were understood as citizens and participants in the nascent project of American democracy. "Public" law was thus the province of wealthy white landowners who held power in county courts, statehouses, and in the national legislature. (8) Beyond the reach of this public sphere existed a vast scope of private control, where those same wealthy white landowners exerted their private rights as property owners to govern the humans they claimed to own.

This Essay attempts to reframe this understanding. What if, instead of seeing the enslaved population of the South as chattel, we understood them as a part of the polity? What if, instead of dividing antebellum government into a weak public sphere protecting a despotic realm of private control by white elites, we conceived of the project of government and domination as unitary? What if we rejected the distinction between public and private and looked instead at where power was being wielded and by whom? (9)

One way to answer this (old and large) question is to focus on the question of local government. In our standard conception of Southern local government, southern states were divided into counties with relatively weak county court governments that acted mainly to protect the existing power of land and human-owning planter elites. (10) It is true that county courts were essentially oligarchies run by and for planter elites. As a result, most of the people who lived in these counties were functionally excluded from self-government. (11) This was in sharp contrast to archetype of the New England town where Thomas Jefferson imagined that every individual was deeply implicated in the daily business of running their local governments. (12)

But when we reject the public/private divide it becomes clear that in many parts of the South, the most salient locus of local political power was not the county, but the plantation. About one quarter of all the enslaved people in the South--one million people--lived on plantations with 50 or more other enslaved people. (13) Nearly all of the rest lived on smaller farms or plantations. (14) These plantations and farms, large and small, were petty fiefdoms where planters ruled despotically with impunity. Not only did they exert near absolute power over the enslaved people they claimed to own, but in a world of weak government and few public services, their power extended over their poorer free white neighbors as well. (15)

One way of understanding local government is as the place where government meets the daily lives of the governed. In our modern view, we can see local government in services and regulations: crosswalks, traffic lights, marriage licenses, permission to repave driveways, police, etc. These are functions that most people associate with local public authorities--be they school boards, local police, or planning boards. (16) But even where some of these functions are privatized, we may still understand them as mechanisms by which we are governed. (17) When we look for an analogue for this intimate governance in the antebellum South, it becomes clear that it was found not at the county level, but closer to home on the plantation.

This is a short Essay, and what follows is mostly dedicated to defending the claim I have outlined here: that we can and should recognize that the plantation was a form of local governance in the antebellum South. (18) This claim is not merely academic. The history of local governance exerts powerful influence over our present conceptions of how we are and should be governed. The idea of the New England Town, with its town meeting and participatory virtues remains has always been a pillar of American political imagination--from John Adams, to Tocqueville, to Jefferson, to the Tea Party and Occupy. (19) On the other side, the county court system of the South occupies a parallel spot in the American political imagination. It represents a form of localism that governs little and delegates much authority to landowners in the private sphere. (20) In many ways, much of our localism today reflects a commitment to the kind of libertarian and minimalist vision of local government that the county represented --it is a caricature of the maxim that the best government is that which governs least. (21)

However, the fantasy of a localism that leaves landowners alone to govern their affairs elevates landowners to the status of governors, and subordinates those subject to their control and influence, be they tenants, employees, or simply those with less economic power. If only the county is "government," then the only members of the polity with any power are the planters who run the county. All the government that takes place in "private" is removed from the public sphere. The hollowed out public sphere becomes a tool for delegating power to the private sphere.

In Part III below, I argue that this hollowing out and delegation was not only a hallmark of plantation localism, but remains alive and well today in places all over the country. (22) Once we see the plantation as a form of local government, we may be reminded to look past the formal distinctions between public (the local government) and private (the homestead) and to ask the question in the present: where is government happening and who is doing it? Who regulates public order and who benefits? Who provides essential services like roads, schools, and transit, and, again, who benefits? Should we commit our localism to the protection of private property or is that a continuance of plantation localism that is out of step with our professed commitments to multiracial democracy and political inclusion?

Even if the answers to these questions must live beyond the boundaries of this brief Essay, observing that the plantation was a locus of Southern localism may offer a window into how the structures of plantation localism continue to help us understand and explain our localism today.


    The central argument of this Essay is that plantations were forms of government. (23) A full defense of this position could (and should) fill many more pages than I have here. In the end, such a full defense goes beyond the ambition or scope of this Essay. Boiled down, however, the proposition relies not on new discoveries or new historical argument, but rather on a reframing rooted in observations already in evidence. This Part begins by demonstrating the extent to which the county court system delegated governance authority to planters and men and women who claimed ownership of other human beings. This Part then shows the ways in which these planters and enslavers did actually wield the power that they were delegated. Planters wrote codes of law, built infrastructure, and in doing so, functionally governed millions of people across the South.

    1. The County Court System - The Standard Account

      When the European colonizers came to the shores of North America, they brought their conceptions of governance with them. In the northeast, puritan Congregationalists brought with them roots of what would become the New England Town--rooted in church and congregation and centered on a collective civic and religious identity. (24) In the South, a different local political imagination emerged, rooted in a more agrarian vision of county government and independent landowners. (25) With the growth of the social and economic institution of slavery, these counties developed as a framework for facilitating the quasi-feudal order of slavery. (26)

      Southern counties were run by a small group of magistrates drawn from, or carefully selected by the richest and most influential men living in the county. (27) The magistrates (or sometimes "justices of the peace") frequently governed for life and from within a tightly-knit local culture of political power and privilege. (28) To the extent that there was an active electorate within these counties, it was, itself, made up of the most elite sliver of the white residents of the county. (29) By design, county courts were not robust democracies. Rather, they were vehicles for preserving the existing distributions of power, property, and privilege. (30)

      County courts were not paragons of...

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