Bound In Wedlock

2018 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize Finalist

Tera W. Hunter, professor of history at Princeton University is a finalist for the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Her book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth (Harvard University Press: 2017) is one of seven finalists for this prestigious award presented by the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History and Gettysburg College. According to the prize’s press release, Bound in Wedlock is “one of the best works of the year on the Civil War period.

Bound in Wedlock is the first comprehensive history of African American marriage in the nineteenth century. Uncovering the experiences of African American spouses in plantation records, legal and court documents, and pension files, Tera W. Hunter reveals the myriad ways couples adopted, adapted, revised, and rejected white Christian ideas of marriage. Setting their own standards for conjugal relationships, enslaved husbands and wives were creative and, of necessity, practical in starting and supporting families under conditions of uncertainty and cruelty.

Past Winners of the Award include: Eric Foner and Ken Burns.


Harvard Press

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Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century

The church’s sanction of slave marriages served to compensate for the denial of legal legitimacy in the eyes of white Christians. The church provided the mechanism for managing these relationships, enforcing the rules and beliefs of the faith. Proslavery advocates used arguments harking back to ancient history to justify the disjuncture between legal and religious prescription. Slaves, they argued, were married in the sight of God, even if they could not gain the highest recognition of man. The exchange of personal vows, without witnesses or priests, had been the norm of Christendom up until the mid-eighteenth century. According to this logic, slaves were married in the eyes of the one to whom it mattered most, making legal marriage extraneous.

Slavery in white Christianity.

Slaves were subjected to close scrutiny once they converted to Christianity by churches governed mostly by white clergy and elders, though in some cases they were also supervised by black watchmen and ministers.

An estimated 22 percent of African Americans in the South identified as Christian by 1860.

Slaves were far more likely than white members to be indicted before disciplinary boards and punished for moral crimes and marital infractions: adultery, cohabitation, bigamy, polygamy, quarreling, desertion, abuse, illegitimate births, and (re)marrying or separating without church permission. 

the committee on colored members

These procedures were often very intrusive and punitive. The “Committee on Colored Members” of the First Baptist Church of Charleston in 1851 indicted two slaves for having an adulterous relationship.

The committee called witnesses, gathered information, and questioned the errant couple. The affair had started seven years earlier, when the man “was in the constant habit of visiting” the woman. “They were on remarkably intimate terms,” one witness noted.

They were often seen together in her room when her husband was absent.
The man’s wife heard about the affair and then discovered her husband in the other woman’s room with her seated on his lap.

On another occasion she saw them in the room and then turned off the light, after which she forced open the door and heard them jump out of the bed. Others claimed to witness the adulterous pair in the act of “illicit intercourse” in bed.

The couple was found guilty after their own testimonies were filled with contradictions, giving credence to the accusations. The committee recommended that they be excommunicated from the church.

The church openly struggled with the problems it created being at once proslavery and promarriage.

Clergy were especially befuddled about the problem of remarriage, specifically, whether to sanction this practice when couples were involuntarily separated. They were forced to be more lenient in ways that ran counter to both biblical principles and civil law.

Churches in states that forbade divorce except by legislative enactment more readily granted divorces to slaves. But proslavery advocates put the onus on slaves to live up to the values demanded by strict Christian principles at the same time that they were required to obey their earthly masters.

White Christians treated slaves as though they were able to freely make the choices that the faith dictated while their own interventions were the grossest violations married couples faced.

Permanent sale or separation were the fate that all slave couples were threatened with and large numbers actually suffered. Sexual violations perpetrated by the third flesh were also a reality in many slave marriages. The greater irony was that slaves were judged by and blamed for their own predicament.

Christian defenders underwrote this stubborn fiction: “forsaking all others” was a choice that slaves could freely make. Failure to do so merely reflected their sullied racial ancestry, not the transgressions of exemplary slaveholders—chaste and benevolent mothers and fathers all.

White Christians sanctioned a tarnished system by dishonestly claiming that it was superior, that slave marriages were formed in the eyes of heaven, not man. Slaves knew the contradictions that Christian marriage offered them.

Still for many, there were benefits. Membership in the Christian church affirmed community recognition of their bonds, provided a forum for airing and resolving disputes, and could potentially lead masters to think twice about spousal separations that were neither honorable nor obedient to the Christian spirit.

Marriage and race were closely linked at the onset of the codification of slavery. The very first law defining racial difference set into motion a series of regulations that would make it difficult and eventually impossible for most African Americans to gain legal recognition and security of their marriages and families.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a law in 1643 that defined African women as “tithable” labor.

Tithes were taxes, revenue raised by the colony, that were usually imposed on men engaged in agricultural labor and male heads of households.

The law inscribed racial difference by exempting the labor of English women whether indentured servants or free. It distinguished between African women as productive laborers capable of arduous physical fieldwork and English women as weak, dependent wives and servants unsuitable to labor under the same regimen.


The tax on African women had to be paid by her master (if she were a slave or servant) by her husband (if she were married) or by herself (if single). The consequences for black marriages and families were grave.

Paying the tax could be prohibitive, making it difficult for African Americans to advance economically or purchase freedom.

It created obstacles for free blacks to marry, as it burdened their households with levies, unlike white households in which men enjoyed the fruits of the labors of their wives and daughters tax-free.

It stigmatized black women’s bodies as constitutionally different and amenable to super-exploitation and marked their inability to overcome all of these hurdles as moral failures.

After establishing the uniqueness of black women’s productive labor in the law, colonists were faced with the potential conflict between their roles as producers of agricultural commodities and reproducers of chattel property.

If the master owned exclusive claims to the products of a slave woman’s labor, who owned the offspring she reproduced?

Some colonists in New England were already operating under the assumption by 1638 that Africans were uniquely situated to being treated as permanent laborers who could be forced to breed future increase on demand.

Further South, white Virginians decided to codify the concept into law by altering the rules of English family lineage and descent.


The General Assembly condemned African slaves and their descendants to lifetime tenure. 

Unlike British laws in which paternity determined a child’s birthrights, the children of African slaves followed the condition of their mothers. 

The law denied the paternity of black fathers and stripped the possibilities that black women could resort to the law for protection against the sexual predations of white men.

Fathers could not be held accountable to recognize, care, or support black children or be charged with violations against their mothers.

Though marriage and childbirth were highly valued cultural practices in the West African nations of origin, the institutionalization of slavery as an inheritable, permanent condition would profoundly trouble the consciousness of slave men and women who contemplated either or both.

The creation of the legal foundation for racial slavery in Anglo-America was constituted in the subjugation of black women.
African-American women’s sexuality served as a central axis of power of masters over slaves, the means by which gender, racial, and material oppression were enmeshed.

The diminution of motherhood, the negation of fatherhood, the disavowal of sexual violence, and the invalidation of marriage became an interlocking system of white dominance over blacks that would be further codified in the laws and carried out in everyday practice for centuries.

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