Sex, Blood, and Belonging in the Early Republic

The following remarks were delivered in June 2016 at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Annual Meeting. The roundtable, “Blood, Belonging, Citizenship, and Legal Personhood in the Early Republic: A Roundtable,” brought together “four scholars whose current projects grapple with how the oppressed and disenfranchised elaborated their place in the body politic and, just as importantly, conceived of their own humanity. Calling upon notions of blood, belonging, citizenship, humanity, and legal personhood, former slaves, free people of color, and white women both criticized the state and also imagined a future (and a past) for themselves that recognized their autonomy and their membership in the republic.” My spoken remarks were titled, “Sex, Blood, and Belonging.” A shorter version of those remarks is presented with light edits below.

I’d like to start with a short quote from Jennifer Morgan, which will be familiar to many in this room. It is from the most recent issue of the Journal of the Early Republic:

“There is something about the institution of slavery that demands a framework in critical tension with the nation. The movement of peoples across national and oceanic boundaries is made possible by the claim that they occupy no legitimate nation-state, and thus the historian is, from the onset, forced to visit multiple archives, and to look for the traces of those whose presence in the nation-state is predicated on producing them as absent.” 1

There can be no doubt that the rise of Atlantic slavery and the formation of Afro-Atlantic communities should be tied to the emergence of the United States as a new nation.2 It was also not a coincidence that the Early Republic moment (1760s to 1860s) was also the moment of inception for an especially radical black diasporic politics of emancipation, decolonization and liberation. It was the moment that saw the fall of Saint-Domingue and the rise of Haiti, an obvious and important reference, to be sure. Those years also bore witness to multiple other slave revolts and conspiracies including Tacky’s Rebellion in 1760 in Jamaica, the German Coast Uprising and march of slaves on New Orleans in 1811, the Demerera revolt in 1823, and the Southampton Revolt (also known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion) in Virginia in 1831.

Screenshot from “Slave Revolt in Jamaica,” a digital project designed by Vincent Brown and the History Design Study at Harvard University. The map details the location of key events during Tacky’s Revolt, including the location of the rebel’s barricade, May 1760. 

Reflecting on the themes of this roundtable—blood, belonging, and citizenship—takes on a special meaning considering the blood spilt on behalf of belonging and not belonging to nations whose citizenship would be defined around white (male) personhood. The theme of blood, in particular, means marrying the pragmatics of armed revolt and resistance to the impossible, fantastical and yet real gradations of race, color, and Africanness used to enslave, disenfranchise, and dispossess men, women, and children forced to migrate to and born on U.S. soil.

The title of this roundtable also returns me to the ways belonging and not belonging remains a deeply gendered and sexualized affair that disrupts attempts to homogenize time, space and the nation. My current book project is on free women of African descent in New Orleans, who are also moving through what I’m describing as New Orleans’ Atlantic world. New Orleans’ Atlantic World is a chronological and spatial formation that extends from the promulgation of the Code Noir in 1685, through the arrival along the Gulf Coast of African women as slaves from Senegambia, Benin, and Congo/Angola, to the expulsion of Saint-Domingue refugees (and a majority of the women expelled  were free and enslaved women and girls of color) from Cuba and their migration to the Gulf Coast in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Studying free women of color anywhere carries with it the assumption of illicit sex, sexual deviance, and sexual violence. The presumption that enslaved women are securing their freedom through carnal machinations is a dominant and homogenizing narrative. This despite work by scholars like Dominique Rogers, focusing on Saint-Domingue, Rosemary Brana-Shute and Randy Sparks, Darlene Clark Hine and David Barry Gaspar, and others stressing alternate, more complex patterns.3 Enslaved men hired themselves out to purchase freedom for enslaved family members. White men freed their children of enslaved women well before they freed the enslaved mother, paternal obligations to offspring eclipsing intimate ties to the women herself. Enslaved women also supported and defended each other, securing freedom by pooling resources with other enslaved and free women.

It is almost as though historians remain seduced, titillated and confounded by the archive in which these women appear, where they are spoken of as problems, nearly monstrous in their sexual intensity. The sources themselves become part of the problem. Ed Baptist, at his most sensory, noted the documents on the domestic slave trade in the United States “stank of the arousal of rape.”4 Baptist, of course, was working with the “fancy trade” in New Orleans, a city that was central to expansion of slavery in the United States and became the busiest domestic slave trading market in the South.5 Emily Owens has theorized white antebellum fascination with mixed-race and phenotypically light-skinned women of African descent as “the thrill” and described the role it plays in the economic ebb and flow of the domestic slave trade itself—particularly the fancy trade in and through New Orleans. Colonial, early national, and imperial attempts to control, produce, and ultimately profit from intimate practices, sexual mores, and white male (or female) desire tied directly to controlling, producing, and ultimately profiting from categories of race and color.6 Likewise, historicizing belonging and citizenship requires historians to resist inscribing a similar epistemic violence in our narrations, requires us to describe and discuss sex, blood, and race when and where we find it in the archive, denaturalizing them as  encounters with their own time/place rationale.

Women in Afirca, from Verum et historicam Descriptionem Avriferi Regni Guineaa, in Theodor de Bry, Small Voyages, vol. 6 (Frankfurt am Main, 1604), plate 3, as seen in Morgan, Jennifer L. “”Some Could Suckle Over Their Shoulder”: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770.” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1997): 186.

As an attempt at doing so and understanding how enslaved and free women of color became femmes de couleur libres in nineteenth century New Orleans, I found myself on the other end of the chronological spectrum, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, where manumission policy itself developed in conjunction with official attempts to regulate intimacy between the races. As it turns out, French Antillean manumission regulations emerged from Lesser Antilles ordinances freeing the children of enslaved women by white men. These ordinances became the 1685 Code Noir. The 1724 slave code which came to govern Louisiana slaveholding developed from a further revision of the 1685 Code Noir’s original tenets–because, stubborn and creative, Africans and people of African descent continued to find routes to freedom.

The ultimate logic of Atlantic slavery—the status of the child follows the mother—did not necessarily hold during the first decades of French expansion. Initially, colonial officials used paternity and race-mixture to determine status, declaring, for instance, that the children of French men by African women or women of African descent to be free. Granted, at times, this freedom was deferred. In 1664, the children of enslaved women by French men in Martinique and Guadeloupe served their mother’s masters until they were 20 years of age, but were free thereafter. In 1672, mixed-race slaves were declared free at age twenty-four. Still–blood more than bonded status determined belonging. And for a brief moment, white colonists, slaveowners, and settlers were also understood to be guilty of illicit behavior. Seen as rebellious and licentious, white colonials machinations with enslaved women—at least the ones who caught child!–were guilty of disrupting blood and belonging, or promoting misrule.

In a few decades blame would shift. In 1673, M. du Ruau Palu, agent-general of the Company of the Indies Occidentales, declared slave status should follow the mother. He argued freeing mixed-race children encouraged enslaved women to have children with French men so their children would one day be free.7 The next year, the Crown ordered all of its colonies to follow partus sequitur ventrem or “status following the mother.” In 1680, a Guadeloupe edict that declared children would follow their mother into lifelong bondage also described the “wickedness of the négresses” engaging in sexual intercourse with French men not to marry and create settled families but to give birth to free children of color.8 And yet, in 1681, in Martinique, mixed-race slaves continued to be freed; women at age fifteen and men at age twenty. And attempts to blame enslaved women for the incidence of mixed-race children remained inconsistent. In 1681, in Martinique, whites who fathered a mixed-race child were fined one thousand livres and required to pay another thousand if they wished to purchase the child from their owner.

Manumission in Gulf Coast Louisiana drew on the precedent set in the islands. As slavery deepened across the Antilles, access to manumission tightened but metropolitan and colonial officials became more explicit about attempting to prohibit reproduction, marriage, and intercourse between the races. By the time slaves began to arrive in lower Louisiana, even intimacy between free people of color and slaves was a matter of law and regulation. The 1724 Code Noir further circumscribed other liberties still held by free people of color. It forbade them from receiving donations or inheritances from whites, and levied a fine on free people of color who harbored fugitive slaves, ordering those unable to pay to be sold for the profit of the colony and re-enslaved.9

These examples speak to me, and I hope everyone here, to the ways histories of slavery are in tension with the nation. To return to the quote by Jennifer Morgan–the histories of black people in what would become the United States are inextricably tied to histories of slavery. As colonies consolidated, as nations emerged from them, as empires emerged from nations, the lived experience of this process for subjects and citizens of African descent has not necessarily been one of freedom, citizenship, progress, or even increased national belonging. But what I also want to suggest here, for discussion, is not that black subjects have been forgotten in the discussion, in the archive or in our written histories. Instead, I want to suggest that the kinds of nations that have been made out of colonies fueled by slave power required blood–and therefore sex, reproduction, and black women’s lives–be regulated in particular ways, and that the very act of nation-making is an act that demands  the labor of black people alongside their (sometimes bloody) social and political displacement. Both, and more, occurring all at the same time.

Thank you.


Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.

  1. Morgan, Jennifer L. “Periodization Problems: Race and Gender in the History of the Early Republic.” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 2 (2016), 357.
  2. Afro-Atlantic is defined here as black communities living and laboring in the colonies, nations, and ancien societies—African and European—geographically situated along the Atlantic’s edge and socio-politically linked to it and each other through the rise of trans-Atlantic slave and sugar trades in the 15th century.
  3. Brana-Shute, Rosemary, and Randy J. Sparks, eds. Paths to Freedom: Manumission in the Atlantic World. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2009; Rogers, Dominique. “Réussir Dans Un Monde d’Hommes: Les Stratégies Des Femmes de Couleur Du Cap-Français.” Journal of Haitian Studies 9, no. 1 (2003): 40–51; Rogers, Dominique. “Les Libres de Couleur Dans Les Capitales de Saint-Domingue: Fortune, Mentalités et Integration À La Fin de l’Ancien Régime (1776–1789).” Ph.D. diss., Université de Bordeaux III, 1999; Gaspar, David Barry, and Darlene Clark Hine. More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas. Indiana University Press, 1996; Gaspar, David Barry, and Darlene Clark Hine. Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas. University of Illinois Press, 2004. The literature devoted to free women of African descent is rich. For just the United States see Wilma King, The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women During the Slave Era (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006); Adele Logan Alexander, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789-1879 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991); Diane Batts Morrow, Persons of Color and Religious At the Same Time: the Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Amrita Myers, Chakrabarti, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Virginia Meacham Gould, “Urban Slavery, Urban Freedom: The Manumission of Jacqueline Lemelle,” in More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, eds. David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 298-314; Gould, ed., Chained to the Rock of Adversity: To be Free, Black and Female in the Old South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998); Suzanne Lebsock, “Free Black Women and the Question of Matriarchy: Petersburg, Virginia, 1784-1820,” Feminist Studies 8, no. 2 (1982): 271-292; Lebsock, The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985);  Loren Schweninger, “Property Owning Free African-American Women in the South, 1800-1870,” Journal of Women’s History 1, no. 3 (1990): 13-44; ); Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Jessica Millward, Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland. University of Georgia Press, 2015. Despite this current work, many, many more dimensions of free women of color’s lives remain to be explored.
  4. Baptist, Edward E. “”Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One-Eyed Men”: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States.” The American Historical Review 106, no. 5 (2001): 1619-1650.
  5. Johnson, Walter. Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. See also Erin Greenwald, curator, “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865.” The Historic New Orleans Collection: http://www.hnoc.org/purchasedlives/.
  6. On this and more for the United States, see Brown, Kathleen M. “Brave New Worlds: Women’s and Gender History.” The William and Mary Quarterly 50, no. 2 (1993): 311–28; Stoler, Ann Laura. “Tense and Tender Ties : The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies.” The Journal of American History 88, no. 3 (2001): 829-865; Stoler, Ann Laura. Haunted By Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History. Duke University Press, 2006.
  7. Léo Elisabeth, “The French Antilles,” in Neither Slave Nor Free: The Freedman of African Descent in the Slave Societies of the New World, ed. David Cohen, William and Jack Greene, P., (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 139; Aubert, Guillaume. “”The Blood of France”:  Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World.” The William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 3 (July 2004), n46.
  8. Aubert, Guillaume. “”The Blood of France”:  Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World.” The William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 3 (July 2004), 461.
  9. The 1685 Code Noir also levied a fine on free people of color who harbored slaves, but did not require re-enslavement.

Jessica Marie Johnson

Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.

Comments on “Sex, Blood, and Belonging in the Early Republic

  • Thank you for this enlightening read as it adds to the understanding of the early republic’s history.

  • interesting read, love the extensive research will try and read those citations asap and I’m so surprised with this site, came by it by accident and so grateful for that as I’m now learning all manner of things

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