Propertied White Women, Family Property, and Governance in the Post-Revolutionary South
““Propertied White Women, Family Property, and Governance in the Post-Revolutionary South,” examines white women’s changing legal and social relationship to family property—chiefly land and enslaved people—in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana from 1790 to 1840. My research shows that throughout this time, many white women owned and managed land, enslaved people, and other forms of personal property, both formally in their own names, and informally, as representatives of their families. But when state lawmakers amended laws in the decades following the Revolution, they changed white women’s formal legal relationship to family property and enslaved people.
As southern state lawmakers enacted new laws to stabilize and grow their exploitative slave states, they invested a broader class of white men with more authority over family land and enslaved people. Traditional legal customs, which had made room for propertied women to manage family businesses and estates, increasingly gave way to more formal and uniform laws that promoted men’s individual control over family property and collective control over enslaved people. My dissertation argues that new laws had unintended consequences. By making it more difficult to pass property through female family members, these laws could undermine the ability of individual patriarchs to keep property within their families and ensure the status of future generations. While wealth remained a powerful and meaningful marker, white masculinity gradually became more important in claiming the vote and, more broadly, a voice in public governance. Upon witnessing the indirect and unintended consequences of laws, which in some instances jeopardized women’s control over property, elite white lawmakers (who were the same group that enacted the laws) began to rethink the laws. Consequently, women, family, and property became a large part of debates about status in the decades following the American Revolution. My conclusions are drawn primarily from legal documents, including state and local court records, state digests and code books, petitions, census records, land grants, conveyance records, wills, and marriage contracts. In addition, this study also pulls from other sources that explain how propertied families and their communities reacted to these legal changes, including memoirs, family papers, newspapers, travel literature, and personal correspondence.
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