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The Law Is a White DogHow Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons$
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Colin Dayan

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780691070919

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691070919.001.0001

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A Legal Ethnography

A Legal Ethnography

(p.138) 5 A Legal Ethnography
The Law Is a White Dog

Colin Dayan

Princeton University Press

This chapter examines how judges determined the character of slaves. In the South, the adaptation of Lockean notions of personal identity to slaves was inextricably bound up with the understanding of person as a forensic term and the kind of legal incapacity and nonrecognition that signaled negative personhood. Thomas Morris in Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619–1860 argues that the most crucial legal fiction was that “the slave was an object of property rights, he or she was a ‘thing’.” However, what most occupied the thoughts of lawyers and judges in cases about personal rights in the courts of Virginia on the eve of the civil war was not to affirm the slave as property, but to articulate the personhood of slaves in such a way that it was disfigured, not erased. Slave law depended on this juridical diminution. The peculiar form impairment took and the transformations that ensued gave new meaning to degradation.

Keywords:   slaves, personal identity, negative personhood, personal rights, property, slave law, juridical diminution, degradation

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