Book Review: The Demands of Justice: Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, & Clemency in Early Virginia

The Demands of Justice: Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, & Clemency in Early Virginia. By Tamika Y. Nunley. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2023. 258 pp. $99.00 hardcover and $27.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Meg Groeling

Rarely does a book of legal history become a way of looking at the lives of enslaved and white southern women. However, award-winning social historian and Associate Professor of History at Cornell University Tamika Y. Nunley, in her book The Demands of Justice: Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, & Clemency in Early Virginia, wields her understanding of law, enslavement, and women’s history into such a book. By using sources like a large variety of Virginia court records dating from 1779 to 1865, Minute and Order Books from every county in Virginia, and Executive Papers from the State Government Collection, Nunley has gathered information about enslaved black women and their court dealings from the Colonial era to the end of the Civil War.

Black women charged by their owners with crimes such as arson, poisoning, theft, murder, and infanticide were remanded to a court of law to receive a hearing and trial. The conviction was final, and only owners or the state of Virginia could spare these women from punishment. Nunley specifically examines clemency, successfully demonstrating how this choice benefitted enslavers and still punished the accused. Sparing an enslaved woman from death was positive from a white public point of view. However, clemency also served as punishment for the accused, too, as it usually resulted in her sale “down the river” with a reputation as a dangerous felon.

Studies of enslaved women’s experiences in the American South have grown considerably in recent years and have much to offer in giving us a fuller understanding of the antebellum era. Nunley clearly shows readers how the seemingly humanistic decision of clemency upheld the property interests of enslavers by keeping the “property” in bondage. New owners benefitted from the continued labor of Black women and the accumulation of wealth from her possible offspring, while former owners rid themselves of a troublesome slave and gained the proceeds from her sale. When allowed testify, the enslaved spoke of themselves as individuals attempting to resist enslavement by fighting back in the limited ways available to them. The antebellum courtroom was unwilling to acknowledge this as part of a crime, if not the cause.

Enslaved women’s historiography will benefit significantly from the information in The Demands of Justice. The book helps to continue to debunk the “veil of paternalism” argument that slavery was a beneficial system for enslaved people and enslavers alike by offering evidence based on court records of women who were tortured, ill-used, and raped. Enslaved women had few alternatives to combat such treatment other than taking direct action, which often resulted in criminal actions against those who enslaved them. The author weaves these narratives into five chapters, three of which deal specifically with: poison, murder, and infanticide. Following these is a look at insurgency, which includes Nat Turner’s Southampton Rebellion. An insurgency is a crime committed by several people, not just one. Nunley’s examination of such events puts the concepts of Christmas massacres, plantation visiting, and encoded planning so often brought up by enslavers as justification for the increase of patrols and or more harsh discipline at certain times of the year from a different perspective.

Tamika Nunley’s excellent book is a fine addition to the growing body scholarship focusing on enslaved women. Her use of court records and writing through a lens of law deepens the understanding of all enslaved women, not simply those who acted out against the paternalistic orientation of American antebellum slavery. Her book dedication to Thavolia Glymph, professor of History at Duke University, and author of 2008’s stellar contribution to nineteenth-century studies, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household, emphasizes the strength of these recent perspectives.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Demands of Justice: Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, & Clemency in Early Virginia

  1. Thank you for the book review. The focus on enslaved women seems to be a topic that is not covered very often historically, but it’s encouraging that you say that this is a topic that is getting more attention in recent years. I was not aware of this so thank you for this insight.

  2. Begin with Thavolia Glymph and go to the books she mentions. Excellent reading, and thanks.

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