slaves were prohibited from marrying -- 4/15/14

Today's selection -- from American Marriage by Priscilla Yamin. For hundreds of years, black slaves in America and its predecessor colonies were prohibited from marrying. Then, with the changes brought by the American Civil War, they were suddenly and forcefully required to marry, though lawmakers were careful to also enact laws against "miscegenation" or marrying whites:

"Not having the right to marry, and under the control of slave owners, slaves built families and relationships based on nonbinding traditions that defined a complex constellation of relationships, including 'sweethearting,' 'taking up;' and 'living together:' Sweethearting and taking up were considered open-ended and nonmonogamous relationships. Living together, however, was understood to be a more binding relationship that assumed a long-term commitment. Laura Edwards, among others, describes slave relationships as more fluid and open than the family structures of the then-dominant white society. Once slaves became citizens, these familial practices were viewed by whites as incongruous with the principles and moral norms of American society that slaves were now entering. In fact they were considered an obstacle to the slaves' successful transition to living outside the bonds of slavery. Because monogamous unions and patriarchal gender roles served to define traditional marriage as the foundation of the nation, policies that encouraged ex-slaves to marry were widely encouraged by northern Republicans.

Contraband Camps during the Civil War

"During the fall and winter of 1862-63, in a number of small towns across the Deep South and Southwest, General Ulysses S. Grant instructed his army to organize 'contraband camps' where ex-slaves could be sheltered and supervised by Union officials, chaplains, and some civilians. Existing on the boundary of the North and South, between war and peace, slavery and emancipation, these camps also became liminal spaces where Union superintendents attempted to help former slaves adjust to, and understand, the meaning of living in freedom. Teaching the fundaments of formal, legal marriage was one of the first priorities. Camp officials were ordered to 'lay the foundations of society' by not only setting up public schools, encouraging religious worship, regulating trade, but also by 'enforcing laws of marriage.' These foundations of society and civilization defined what it meant to be living as free men and women. In other words, freedom and citizenship were characterized by certain acceptable behaviors.

"The familial and sexual practices of the fugitive slaves who crossed over Union lines during the Civil War received intense scrutiny, and this was especially true for those who entered the camps. In trying to obtain information about former slaves and their habits, Chaplain John Eaton Jr., the general superintendent of the contrabands in Grant's charge, circulated questionnaire in April 1863 to the director of each camp concerning the freedpeoples 'marital notions & practices.' One of Eaton's questions concerned how ex-slaves understood marriage. A camp director from Corinth, Mississippi replied concisely that ex-slaves' understanding of marriage was 'all wrong.' Still another from Grand Junction, Tennessee responded that most of them have no idea of the sacredness of the marriage tie, declaring that marriage, as it exists among the whites, has been impossible for them. In other cases, the marriage relation exists in all its sacredness without legal sanction.' While officials reported that some slave unions could be characterized as committed unions, more often they noted that slaves 'know what marriage is among the whites but have yielded to the sad necessity of their case.' Chaplain Eaton charged that, 'among the things to be done, to fit the freed people for a life of happiness and usefulness, it was obvious that the inculcation of right principles and practices in regard to the social relations ought to find a place.'

"Linking the practice of marriage to freedom and a 'life of happiness and usefulness,' individual camp directors developed marriage rules. In 1863, the contraband camp in Corinth, Mississippi reported that 'all entering our camps who have been living or desire to live together as husband and wife are required to be married in the proper manner, and a certificate of the same is given. This regulation has done much to promote the good order of the camp.' These rules were designed not only to maintain decorum as ex-slaves entered the camps, but also to emphasize that marriage, representing the 'right principles and practices,' was important because it promoted order grounded in moral, sexual, and gender norms that former slaves were to emulate.

"By early 1864, the secretary of war had made marriage regulation official military policy and directed camp supervisors to 'solemnize the rite of marriage among Freedmen.' By that spring the policy had expanded. A Union military edict had authorized army clergy to perform marriages among freedmen and women, instructing them to issue marriage certificates and record all marriages. The policy was widely supported by superintendents of the contraband camps. Chaplain Warren from Vicksburg, Mississippi observed: 'the introduction of the rite of Christian marriage and requiring its strict observance, exerted a most wholesome influence upon the order of the camps and the conduct of the people.' ...

"Camp directors argued for the necessity of learning social relations in transitioning to freedom. Their approach was based on the presumed organic relationship between morality and citizenship, and the importance of the principles of marriage and family to defining belonging. The obligations embedded in marriage, which included moral and gender norms, were crucial to this transition. ... Colonel William Pile ... explained that marriage was one of the 'first things' necessary to qualify ex-slaves for citizenship."


Priscilla Yamin


American Marriage: A Political Institution (American Governance: Politics, Policy, and Public Law)


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2012 University of Pennsylvania


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