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The Property of Blackness: The Legal Fiction of Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends.

In the preface to Frank J. Webb's 1857 novel The Garies and Their Friends, Harriet Beecher Stowe praises the novel for addressing a question that greatly absorbed the nation: "Are the race [who are] at present held as slaves capable of freedom, selfgovernment, and progress?" (Garies 25). Stowe's comments reveal her belief that Webb's novel--and fiction more broadly--can examine and even resolve deeply divisive political debates. Specifically, Stowe argues that by envisioning African Americans' "freedom, self-government, and progress"--the necessary qualities for political agency in antebellum America--Webb legitimizes African American claims to civic identity. However, contemporary literary critics often disregard The Garies because they claim, unlike Stowe, that it offers a limited view of African Americans' capacity for "progress," especially away from white ideologies, such as the cult of domesticity. (1) In this article, I argue that these interpretations arise from treating The Garies from a limited literary perspective. Instead, we should take more seriously the novel's engagement with antebellum political rhetoric and reconsider the novel as an alternative legal fiction, written during a period in which African Americans were often silenced, erased, or negated by the American judicial system.

Although many critics have noted Webb's interest in African American domesticity, few have paid attention to Webb's engagement with the legal discourse of his time. Yet The Garies is populated by several lawyers and filled with numerous legal cases. It also contains countless references to legal rules and practices, especially--and as I contend, not coincidentally--those surrounding citizenship and marriage. Centrally, The Garies takes up the antebellum belief that marriage bolstered male self-possession, or "self-government," as Stowe called it. Self-possession, the notion that one owns oneself, distinguished free peoples from enslaved peoples and was considered a prerequisite for citizenship, according to American legal discourse. In The Garies, Webb depicts the ways that marriage can secure African American male self-possession, and in so doing, he also sharply critiques antebellum jurisprudence for racializing the roles of husbands and wives.

To understand better the legal context of Webb's novel and the target of his criticisms, I will investigate a specific case that demonstrates the ways antebellum courts endorsed racial hierarchies and barred African American couples from enjoying the same privileges as their white counterparts. In 1814, George Stephens, a free African American, appeared before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking a writ of habeas corpus to return his wife Susan from indentured servitude. Before marrying Stephens, Susan had escaped from slavery in Maryland and settled in Philadelphia. Not long after their wedding, Susan's former master tracked her down and prepared to return her to enslavement. At this point, Joseph Clements, a white friend of the Stephenses, offered to pay for Susan's manumission on the condition that the couple would serve as his indentured servants. Three months after Susan signed her indenture papers, George Stephens filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that as a wife and feme covert, Susan did not have the legal authority to alienate her services from him and that the terms of her indenture should therefore be nullified.

Stephens's writ relied on the common-law concept of marital unity--a legal fiction that asserted that husband and wife merged into one identity when they married. For much of the nineteenth century, marriage was a status relationship--with predefined roles and responsibilities--rather than a purely contractual one. (2) As part of the common law's construction of marriage, a husband had an exclusive right to his wife's labor, and neither the wife nor the husband had the authority to alienate it from him. Stephens's lawyer urged the court to uphold the notion of marital unity, relying on the common law's assertion that a wife's legal identity and labor belonged to her husband.

The defense argued that because Susan Stephens was a slave, she had no legal right to enter into a marriage contract. According to this view, she was not legally married and so acted as a feme sole in her indentures; therefore she did have the legal authority to sign her agreement with Clements. Thus, the defense lawyer asserted, the indenture contract was valid. It is important to note that the lawyer denied Susan's legal capacity to enter into one contract--marriage--but supported her right to contract for her manumission. According to the lawyer, the common law was intended to protect wives. Due to Susan Stephens's position as a slave, however, the court would not be protecting her by upholding marital unity and denying her right to enter into the indentured contract that could secure her freedom. Therefore, the court should not uphold the common law's status construction of marriage in this case and must instead treat Susan Stephens as a feme sole in order to ensure her protection from slavery.

In their ruling, the justices agreed that Susan Stephens did not have the authority to marry. They also expanded on the defense's discussion of protection, claiming that the common law prevented a wife from alienating her labor in order to shield her from possible coercion from her husband. (3) Yet Susan's case was different; she was not a wife, but a slave. If the judges followed the common law, ruled that she was a feme covert, and nullified her indentures, they would in effect return her to slavery. As Chief Justice Tilghman reasoned, "... [the] same principle which protects a free woman, would oppress [this] slave, by preventing her acquisition of freedom. I can have no doubt therefore but in a case of a slave, the general principle of the common law is to be rejected, and a new principle adopted, calculated for the condition, and operating for the benefit of the slave" (Commonwealth v. Clements, 6 Binn. 206). Because Susan Stephens's indentured servitude would purportedly secure her freedom, the judges claimed, the contract with Clements ought to be enforced. By validating Susan's right to enter one contract (her indentured servitude) and denying her right to enter another (her marriage), the court configured itself, rather than George Stephens, as Susan's source of protection.

In so doing, the justices' decision effectively undermined George Stephens's authority as husband under the common law. His writ did not ask for a "new principle" of protection, as the judges put it; instead, he sought legal confirmation that he, as a husband, had exclusive right to his wife's labor. Having a wife meant owning her labor; real wives did not enter business or labor contracts. But Susan was not a real wife, so George was not a real husband; the slave code was more powerful than their marriage vows. Because marital unity was "a fiction that supported the principle of wifely dependency and thereby helped establish the terms of republican male citizenship," when the judges denied Stephens's ability to protect his wife, they also denied his capacity for self-possession and thus his ability to be an equal citizen (Hartog 110).

Many antebellum African American texts explore how the status construction of marriage can provide a powerful source of male self-possession. Most commonly, these narratives reveal the flaws of white marriage, exposing it as almost always a perversion of the status ideal. In addition, these texts hold out the possibility that African American marriages alone can redeem the institution--even though, as George Stephens's case shows, the law tried to prevent African Americans from inhabiting such a relation. The corruption of white families and the redemptive promise of African American marriage feature prominently in texts by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Henry Bibb, and William Craft. (5) Some critics claim that the hegemonic power of white legal culture put pressure on African Americans to adapt to white ideals of conventional status relationships. (6) While it is important to recognize how white legal culture enshrined the status ideal, we should not view all African American texts' portrayal of marriage as a simple capitulation to or replication of white value. By depicting African Americans' ability to enact status-based relationships properly--and whites' failure to do so--these texts also envision a reformed legal order. According to legal critic Robert Cover, this is an essential characteristic of narrative: "To live in a legal world requires that one know not only the precepts, but also their connections to possible and plausible states of affairs. It requires that one integrate not only the 'is' and the 'ought,' but the 'is,' the 'ought,' and the 'what might be.' Narrative so integrates these domains" (102). Mid- nineteenthcentury African American authors integrated the "is" with "what might be" in order to validate African American marriage--and hence, African American male selfpossession--in the court of public opinion. (7) In other words, narrative fictions sought to legitimize African American marriage in ways that Stephens's writ could not.

Unlike other African American narratives of this period, The Garies focuses almost exclusively on a free black community. Rather than ignoring the problem of slavery, Webb uses this setting to raise the question of what freedom could mean for African Americans, especially when, as George Stephens's experience illustrates, the law denied them the same rights and privileges as whites. In other words, if the ability to inhabit a status construction of marriage was essential to male self- possession and thus male citizenship, then what was the significance of African American freedom if courts consistently undermined their marriages? (8) By situating the novel within its antebellum legal context, we can better understand how Webb--and other authors- connected African American male self-possession with the status construction of marriage. In so doing, we discover that his novel is not simply complicit with or subservient to dominant white culture; rather, Webb asserts that African Americans possess more capacity for self-possession than white Americans.

The Garies and Their Friends begins at Clarence Garie's plantation in Georgia within I the opulent home of a seemingly happy aristocratic family. Emily, an African American woman who lives with her white owner Garie as his wife, has recently discovered that she is pregnant. Unable to bear the thought of passing the matrilineal curse of slavery onto another child, "Mrs. Garie" convinces Gaffe to move the family to Philadelphia so that the two can legally marry and this new child can be born free. Although Webb spends very little of the novel focusing on the practice of slavery, almost all of the novel's action is propelled by Emily Gaffe's desire to have a legally recognized marriage and fulfill the role of protected wife and mother rather than the role of slave and concubine.

Once in Philadelphia, the Gaffes find a racially mixed city that promises almost as much unrest and contention as did their home in the South. They quickly befriend the industrious and kind African American family, the Ellises. In contrast, their neighbor is the villainous and racist white lawyer George Stevens, who surreptitiously discovers that he is the only white next of kin in the Gaffe family--a secret that he uses later in the novel to advance his own interests. Also in Philadelphia lives Mr. Walters, the leader of the African American community and an evident model of the self-possessed black man, particularly due to his extensive property ownership.

Walters, the reader soon learns, owns "one hundred brick houses" and is "possessed of more money than [he could] conveniently spend" (Garies 78; 150). Webb repeatedly underscores how this wealth and property ownership provides Walters with security and authority. These early descriptions of Mr. Walters endorse a classical view of self-possession that relies on property ownership rather than the racial categories upheld during the antebellum period. In the early national era, citizenship was tied directly to land ownership. (9) Legal theorists claimed that to participate actively and without bias in the body politic, a man could not be under another man's sway or duress. Property in land thus represented a wealth on which one could always depend and that could not be taken away. This sort of wealth would secure, in other words, one's self-possession. With the turn of the nineteenth century, property became more fluid and wage labor became more common. (10) The terms of self-possession therefore shifted from being grounded in land ownership to being grounded in a core sense of the self. In other words, legal theorists began to conceive of self- possession as a kernel of the self that one could not alienate in labor. This notion was derived primarily from Locke's famous pronouncement in the Second Treatise that "every man has a Property in his own Person" (305). (11) As Peter Coviello describes it, "... all of the individual's labor power is alienable in its transformation into a commodity, but the whole of the person is not--a wholly alienated person, a human commodity, is, properly speaking, not a laborer but a slave" (48). To distinguish wage laborers from slaves in a rapidly changing economy, legal practitioners began to recognize a new source of male self-possession--a source that was located in essential qualifies of the self rather than in the objects one owned.

Thus as land ownership became more rare, whiteness itself became an attribute of self-possession, primarily because whites legally could not be slaves in the United States. Consequently, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, a body of legal discourse established whiteness as a source of self-possession. U. S. courts repeatedly conceptualized whiteness as a kind of property and protected it like other possessions. As legal scholar Cheryl Harris has argued, "White identity conferred tangible and economically valuable benefits and was jealously guarded as a valued possession, allowed only to those who met a strict standard of proof" (1726). Antebellum legal rhetoric demonstrates the ways that "whiteness realizes and concretizes the fiction of an inalienable property in the self" (Coviello 48). (12)

In The Garies, Webb rejects the antebellum conception of whiteness as property by presenting Mr. Walters as a strong African American male who embodies selfpossession via property ownership. Throughout the novel, Walters's accumulation of land and other forms of stable property shores up his self-possession, providing him with a unique and unassailable power in the community. In his interactions with other African Americans, Walters emphasizes the importance of stable property ownership as a method for making oneself free. Most notably, he condemns the practice of African American males entering domestic service, or "hiring out," claiming that it depletes and threatens male self-possession. In Walters's formulation, this kind of employment is dangerously close to slavery--an emptying out of one's self for a white employer. For example, early in the novel, Mrs. Ellis decides to send her young son Charlie to work for the white widow Mrs. Thomas. Charlie balks at the prospect, swearing: "I'm not going to be stuck up behind their carriage, dressed like a monkey in a tail coat--I'll cut off my own head first" (Garies 56). Charlie's refusal acknowledges that domestic service transforms the self; by doing this work, he would lose his humanity and become a monkey. This type of labor involves such an emptying of self, Charlie indicates, that decapitating himself would be a wiser choice. When the Ellis adults seek Mr. Walters's advice about the situation, Mr. Walters agrees with young Charlie:
 If you can't get on without the boy's earning something,
why don't
 you do as white women and men do?... [T]hey rather give [their
 sons] a stock of matches, blacking, newspapers, or apples, and
 start them out to sell them.... Where would I or Mr. Ellis have
 been had we hired out all our lives at so much a month? It begets a
 feeling of dependence to place a boy in such a situation.

As Walters sees it, the domestic service arrangement is not really a contract for labor, but is instead a parceling out of one's self for a wage until there is simply no self remaining. It creates, as Webb makes clear, a dependent relation dangerously similar to slavery--or in Walters's words, it would turn Charlie into a "subservient old numbskull" (Garies 92). Rather than advising that Charlie enter domestic service, Mr. Walters endorses a classically liberal view of labor in which self- possession is maintained through selling concrete materials for an exact value, representing what Stephen Best has referred to as the antebellum period's "deep morality of production" (161).

Mr. Walters's true power becomes evident during the race riot that marks the novel's climax. The Garies' neighbor, Mr. Stevens, instigates the riots to accomplish two selfish goals: to devalue the real estate in the African American neighborhood so that he can buy it and sell it later at a profit; and to have Mr. Garie killed so that he can claim his stake in the Garie family property, since he is the family's secret white next of kin. The riot scene is notable in antebellum fiction for its brutal violence, which stems from one white lawyer's desire for wealth and more specifically wealth gained through property speculation. During the riot scene, a white mob viciously terrorizes the African American community. Mr. Ellis is gruesomely attacked, Mr. Garie is murdered, and Mrs. Garie dies from sheer terror during childbirth. The only safe space during the riots is within Mr. Walters's home, which becomes a shelter for many members of the community, including much of the Ellis family.

Webb uses the race riot not only to envision the destructive effects of white speculation, but also to make important connections between African American domesticity and self-possession. Immediately before the riot, the women of the Ellis family retreat to Mr. Walters's formidable home, bringing with them a host of decidedly womanly skills. Throughout the intense event, the younger Ellis women draw on their domestic knowledge as a kind of arsenal. For instance, Caddy Ellis-by far the most fastidious housekeeper in the novel and perhaps of all antebellum fiction--uses her kitchen tools to concoct a mixture of boiling water and pepper, which she then repeatedly pours on the approaching white mob. She is able to transfer her domestic skills into a line of defense without herself engaging directly in combat. (13)

It is Caddy's sister Esther, however, who most actively defends the home space using her domestic abilities. When she enters Mr. Walters's house, she responds that the sight of the guns collected in preparation for the riot "make[s] me wish I were a man" (Garies 235). She then relates a story about watching an African American woman being abused by the white mob and claims: "I felt I could have strangled them: had I been a man, I would have attacked them on the spot" (235). Contained within Esther's desires to be a man, though, is her recognition that she is in fact a woman ("had I been a man") and that she cannot strangle the white attackers. Esther adeptly distinguishes between behavior that is appropriate for women and behavior that is appropriate for men. Yet during the riot, Esther's example shows that women are necessary for the defense of the African American home. Before the mob attacks the house, one of the maie African American defenders absentmindedly starts a tire in the fireplace, and a spark jumps out from the grate toward the stockpile of gunpowder. Esther alone has the presence of mind to stamp out the spark and clear the hearth. As Robert Reid-Pharr points out, her heroic act mirrors the more mundane domestic chore of taking out the ashes (71). Her femininity is further emphasized when she faints almost immediately after the episode. Even though Esther may wish she were a man, she--like her sister--adeptly uses womanly skills to help defeat the white attackers. Notably, Webb tells the reader that it is during these preparations for the riot--these moments in which Esther realizes her potential to defend the home space--that Walters's love for her develops.

In giving Walters a mate as feminine and strong in that femininity as Esther, Webb engages antebellum rhetoric that envisioned marriage as essential to maie self-possession. In the eyes of the law, in which marriage was a relationship structured by status rather than contract, husband and wife were one person, and that one person was the husband. (14) The wife's lack of a legal identity prevented her from entering into contracts and from keeping her own earnings, thereby regulating her interaction with credit markets and speculation. Wives and their labor, then, became a source of property that could not be alienated away from husbands. As we saw in the case of Susan Stephens, George Stephens argued in his writ of habeas corpus that he had exclusive right to his wife's labor. He owned it, and she could not sign it over to Clements for any purpose. Similarly, by marrying Esther, Walters secures another source of stable value to further bolster his self-possession.

The notion of "owning" another human's labor is disturbing and problematic, particularly in an antebellum text that attempts to condemn slavery and make a case for African American uplift. Yet the view that a wife's labor belonged to her husband and family--and should not be sold on the market--was prevalent throughout abolitionist discourse. In speeches and essays, abolitionists configured the domestic space--and women's place within it--as part of the reward that African American men could expect from emancipation. As Henry Ward Beecher said in a speech in November 1865,
 The slave is a man and he will respond to human influence. Although
 a black man may never be a Yankee, he will follow hard after. Why
 should he, an ill-compensated and bewhipt drudge work willingly? ...
 Give him the prospect of a home, a family that is not
 marketable, and he will work. (qtd. in Stanley 138) 

Beecher's argument that a family should not be put on the auction block corresponded with the belief that a wife should not go to the market to work. Instead, her labor belonged to her husband; she did not work for herself. She was as Beecher claims, "unmarketable."

By embracing the status construction of marriage, Webb and other activists not only sought to establish African American men's self-possession, but also African American wives' right to hold the same position as white wives: removed from the labor market and ensconced within the home as a private individual. To become a wife meant not to labor for other families any longer--a privilege that had long been the exclusive position of white women. As Claudia Tate has pointed out, "Black women [at mid-century] were public commodities of exchange whose market value was exclusively indexed as the production of material wealth, whereas white women were private individuals who circulated in patriarchal society for producing heirs and regulating moral, spiritual, and emotional values" (25). The arguments of former slaveholders during Reconstruction provide a rich archive of this racialized view of the role of the wife. Katherine Franke, in her study of African American marriage after the Civil War, demonstrated that due in part to "disgust that African American wives might acquire an unearned elevation in status by playing the lady to their husbands' gentlemen, some southern civic leaders voiced concern that legitimating African American marriages would cheapen the respectability that their own wives enjoyed as veritable southern ladies" (298). One such planter argued: "[M]ost ... Freedwomen who have husbands are not at work--never having made any contract at all Their husbands are at work, while they are as nearly idle as it is possible for them to be...." This planter went on to say that black freedwomen "play the lady and [demand to] be supported by their husbands like white folks" (qtd. in Stanley 189). In other words, the privilege to be protected at home was a function of whiteness while the African American wife's role must be to labor for others. (15) These persistent connections between emancipation and the status construction of marriage have prompted historian Amy Dru Stanley to note that "no axiom had been more important to abolitionism" than the concept of the home space and a husband's exclusive right to his wife's labor. Abolitionists, she argues, "constantly contrasted the morality of free market relations to the evil of the slave system on the grounds that all free, laboring men had a right to an inviolate household" (142).

The notion of the "inviolate household" had a dual meaning for nineteenth- century African American families. It did not simply indicate that the home space was cordoned off from market relations as it did to many whites; it also implied that the home space was safe from white racial violence. We need think only of George Stephens's case to recall how the specter of slavery disrupted marital unity for many African Americans. Stephens--as well as African American authors like Webb--believed that the status construction of marriage could not only provide a stronghold against market relations, but could also create the stability necessary to resist white racial violence and intrusion.

A set of images in Walters's home illustrates the connection between a statusbased marriage and this defense against white violence. Early in the novel, Webb describes one of Walters's paintings--a portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the black Haitian revolutionary leader. Walters admires the portrait because it shows the general in full military dress and in so doing subverts popular racist caricatures. "That," he tells Mr. Garie when they discuss the image, "looks like a man of intelligence. It is entirely different from any likeness I ever saw of him. The portraits generally represent him as a monkey-faced person, with a handkerchief about his head" (Garies 151). Walters displays a revolutionary hero--a powerful fighter who successfully defended his home. In the image, Toussaint is depicted as intelligent and self-possessed. Because he owns himself, he is fully human rather than appearing as an animal that merely mimics human appearances.

Years after Esther and Walters marry, the narrator returns to the very room in Walters's home where the black community defeated the white mob during the riot. A new portrait is now hanging "opposite to [Walters's] portrait of Toussaint .... It is a likeness of... Mrs. Esther Walters, nee Ellis. The brown baby in the picture is the little girl at her side,--the elder sister of the other brown baby who is doing its best to pull from its mother's lap the doll's dress upon which she is sewing" (Garies 361). Webb's imagery is significant, if not exactly subtle. Balanced by the intelligent, military hero is the black maternal presence, performing domestic duties and serving in the home. Juxtaposed by the military leader, Esther is depicted as surrounded by her children and engaged in domestic pursuits. Through these images, Webb parallels the maie revolutionary with the female domestic. They are the twin guards of the home space, the forces that can resist white control and violence. The revolutionary protects the black female so that she can inhabit a stable space, protected from the market relations embraced by white characters. These images, then, replicate the common-law structure of marriage: self-possessed maie leader with nurturing African American mother.

Through the violence of the race riot, Webb compares the protection afforded by Walters's home to the fragility of the mixed-race Gaffe home. Webb describes the former as a "fortress," and reveals the latter as tragically vulnerable (Garies 237). The difference between Walters's home and the Garies' home lies in the difference between the two male heads of household and how they understand status relationships. Webb's depiction of Emily and Clarence Garie's relationship reveals that their home is susceptible to attack because it is founded upon a confusion of status relationships. By blurring the lines of Mrs. Garie's standing--is she wife or is she slave?- Webb emphasizes a distinction between the legal construction of marriage and the legal construction of slavery. Both are status relationships under the law, but they carry different social and legal implications. The early stages of Clarence Gaffe's attraction to Emily are particularly disturbing:
 Mr. Garie had paid two thousand dollars for her, and was the envy
 of all the young bucks in the neighbourhood who had competed with
 him at the sale. Captivated by her beauty, he had esteemed himself
 fortunate in becoming her purchaser; and as time developed the
 goodness of her heart, and her mind enlarged through the
 instructions he assiduously gave her, he found the connection that
 might have been productive of many evils, had proved a boon to
 both; for whilst the astonishing progress she made in her education
 proved her worthy of the pains he took to instruct her, she
 returned threefold the tenderness and affection he lavished upon
 her. (Garies

It is on the auction block that Garie becomes interested in Emily--when she is subjected to his and other white men's gazes. Purchasing her makes him an object of envy among the other white men in the community, even though his ability to buy her is not a reflection of his inherent worthiness or manliness but just a measure of his power within the market. Gaffe's feelings toward Emily change not because he becomes convinced that owning people is wrong; rather, her affection and capacity for education make her worthy of becoming his wife. Even after Clarence Gaffe lives with Emily as his "wife," he never renounces his position as an owner of human bodies.

The Garies' departure from the South does not, then, signal an abandonment of slaveholding. Webb makes it clear that Mr. Gaffe felt "no pleasure" in leaving the South or in relinquishing his plantation, but does so only to "gratif[y] Emily, and secur[e] freedom to her and the children" (Garies 126). In other words, Gaffe does not feel responsibility for the African American community. Even though he moves his own family North for freedom, he continues to own dozens of black people without remorse. Instead of selling his plantation, he engages an overseer to manage it in his absence. Webb describes this hiring process in great detail to highlight the viciousness and corruption of the plantation system. Gaffe interviews applicants ranging from "mean, weasel-faced, poor white Georgians" to "short, thick-set men, with fierce faces, who gloried in the fact that they had ... killed refractory negroes" (88). Ultimately, Gaffe selects a man "whose appearance and manners betokened a better heart" than the others, but this "appearance" does not soothe the terrified, soon-to-be-abandoned Gaffe slaves (89). One slave, Eph, a particular favorite among the entire family, "was in a state of great perturbation ... and earnestly sought to be permitted to accompany [the family] to the North" (88). Mr. Gaffe declines Eph's request on the grounds that "it was impossible that the [plantation] could get on without him" (89). In other words, Gaffe refuses Eph's request in order to maintain and increase the value of his estate. Providing this extensive background about Garie's approach to slaveholding provokes the question: how can Gaffe shield his wife from the vagaries of the market and the dangers of facial violence--as Walters can do--if he himself gains wealth from the commodification of bodies and the terrible power of that same racial violence?

The Garie family's movement North brings them neither prosperity nor safety because the family, and Mr. Gaffe particularly, never fully break their ties with slavery. Thus, the Gaffe family fails to procreate or prosper in almost any way. Gaffe is killed, and Emily Gaffe dies during childbirth, as does the baby she wanted to protect by moving. In addition, the surviving Gaffe children do not receive the bulk of the wealth of their father's estate, and one dies traumatically in early adulthood. The only one of the rive Gaffes to survive in a novel named after the family is the youngest daughter, who marries into a "pure" black family and becomes the ideal wife.

Webb's model for maie self-possession, then, relies on the perpetuation of status--or unequal relations and is contingent upon African American women surrendering to African American men all their claims to citizenship or virtually any existence outside of the family. If The Garies is therefore a novel of African American uplift, then that uplift comes at the expense of women and the lower classes, whom Webb refuses to envision as full-fledged members of the African American community. Although Esther Ellis embodies a domestic ideal, her situation echoes that of Susan Stephens and other African American women in the nineteenth century. In Stephens's case, regardless of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision, she would either be "protected" by a status relationship with her husband or "protected" by the court. In other words, male legal writing would erase her identity, no matter whose claim the justices upheld. Harriet Jacobs famously recognizes the ironies of emancipation for African American women when she writes at the close of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861): "Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage" (201). Here, Jacobs implies the many ways that marriage stood in opposition to freedom for African American women. Indeed, long after the Reconstruction period, African American wives continued to disappear behind America's legal fictions.

Webb's novel participates in a similar disappearing. After the riot, the women rapidly fade from The Garies. The women who survive it appear only in the context of the domestic space. Esther is essentially transformed into an image in a painting, rather than an active character; the younger Emily Garie's story becomes subsumed by that of her husband, Charlie Ellis. Webb never describes their many domestic tasks as tedious or even demanding--as were Charlie Ellis's efforts when he was hired out to perform domestic service for a white woman. Apparently, as long as household labor benefits the African American family, then it is hOt really labor at all. In this way, Webb erases the difficulty of women's work, even though it is on this labor that the household evidently depends. For instance, when the Ellis women take in extra sewing to help the family recover financially after the riots, they perform their work within the family's domestic space, and are seemingly unable to act independently or even exist outside of the home. Additionally, they give their earnings over to their male relatives rather than keep the money for themselves. There seems in fact no self for which to keep the money. Webb's female African American characters might inhabit a privileged status position, particularly when compared to their enslaved corollaries in the South, but they lack agency and even a material presence in the novel.

The Garies therefore replicates the class and gender hierarchies created by white society instead of imagining a more equal way to structure social relations. Webb ultimately endorses the same path to self-possession constructed by white legal culture: stable property ownership and a marriage based in status rather than in contract. Yet, interestingly, Webb advocates using this understanding of self-possession as a way to gain ascendancy over whites, rather than simply to imitate them. Throughout The Garies Webb depicts a free African American culture that embraces stable property, eschews speculation, and enacts a proper understanding of a status-based household--and does so more successfully than any white community. In contrast, Webb repeatedly portrays white men who are on the precipice of losing their self- possession because they are too committed to credit and speculative ventures. Like other nineteenth-century legal theorists, Webb too ties self-possession to race. However, the way Webb associates blackness with property ownership--and whiteness with speculation--powerfully inverts the prevailing legal theories of the nineteenth century. The Garies ultimately reveals that with a proper understanding of self- possession, African American men might assume a more solid footing than white men, who are literally losing themselves in their involvement with speculation.

Webb repeatedly emphasizes the ways that whites' attachment to speculation jeopardizes their self-possession. For example, one white businessman, Mr. Blatchford, rescinds his offer to hire Charlie Ellis because his workmen threaten to quit if forced to work alongside a black man. As the novel's narrator describes, Blatchford feels the injustice of his decision but believes it is necessary because of the danger of financial ruin: "To accede to his workmen's demands he must do violence to his own conscience; but he dared not sacrifice his business and bring ruin on himself and his family, even though he was right" (Garies 328). When his business associate Burrell later relates this story to his wife, she criticizes Blatchford for not following his conscience, but her husband swiftly rejects her critique as naive:
 Not so fast, my little woman.... You are unjust to Blatchford; he
 could not help himself, he was completely in their power.... [H]e
 is under contract to finish a large amount of work within a
 specified time; and if he should fail to fulfill his agreement it
 would subject him to immense loss--in fact, it would entirely ruin
 him.... [H]e is greatly in debt from unfortunate speculations, and
 a false step just now would overset him completely; he could hOt
 have done otherwise than he has.... (Garies

Burrell's statement registers the perils of credit and its power to rob men of their self-possession. As he says, Mr. Blatchford "can not help himself"; he is "completely" in the power of his business contracts. Because Burrell is under the sway of other men, he can no longer make ethical decisions based on his own principles, and in turn perpetuates racial discrimination. He is particularly in jeopardy because of his dalliance with speculation, which has left him in debt and therefore in danger of disappearing completely.

Throughout the novel, white characters embrace the volatile commercial economy of credit, speculation, and unstable value. Mr. Stevens, the villain, plans the race riot as a way to temporarily devalue property in the neighborhood so that he can subsequently buy up the properties at a discount, "restore order," and then resell the properties at a considerable profit. Webb condemns such speculation, directly comparing it to gambling. He describes a business partner of Mr. Stevens as engaging in just such dangerous activity:
 Mr. Morton speculated in stocks and town-lots in the same spirit
 that he had formerly betted [sic
] at the racecourse and
 cockpit in his dear Palmetto State .... To have frequented gaming
 halls and race courses in the North would have greatly impaired his
 social position; and as he set a high value upon that he was
 compelled to forego his favourite pursuits, and associate himself
 with a set of men who conducted a system of gambling operations
 upon [the Exchange], of a less questionable but equally exciting
 character. (Garies

According to Webb, there is no significant difference between betting on horses and betting on the exchange; betting on stocks is merely "less questionable" than outright gambling.

Such credit- and contract-based practices create a white home space pervaded by market relations. It is within the Stevens' family home--the white domestic space that Webb describes most thoroughly--that Mr. Stevens hatches his plan for the race riots and openly discusses his devious plans with his wife. The ardor of speculation suffuses the home, which is marked by violence and chaos rather than the order and harmony of status. Webb even presents a scene in which Mrs. Stevens whips her daughter, Lizzie. In a complete rejection of the affective motherly discipline that Richard Brodhead finds in sentimental literature, Mrs. Stevens resorts to violence--and not coincidentally, the same violence that the master uses to discipline his slaves. (16) Thus, instead of the home providing a safe space from the dangers of contract and speculation, in Webb's hands the white home becomes inextricably linked to and poisoned by such arrangements. In fact, Stevens's home is even mortgaged to the wealthy Mr. Walters. His house is literally at risk, a disturbing prospect in a novel that so closely associates owning a home with owning oneself. Stevens's house--and by extension his self is in constant jeopardy of being taken away from him.

Stevens clearly understands Walters's power as a property owner, as evidenced by a story he tells his wife. During a recent business trip, Stevens reports, Mr. Walters was refused dinner service by a white hotel landlord who triumphantly proclaimed that the hotel does "not permit niggers to eat at their tables" (Garies 155). Upon returning home, Walters buys the hotel. The white hotel landlord, it turns out, is currently attempting to renegotiate his lease of the hotel; he must do so in order to be able to pay his creditors. When he travels to meet with the new owner of the hotel and learns that it is Mr. Walters, he realizes that he is ruined:
 The lease had just expired, and the landlord was anxious to
 negotiate another; he was also making some arrangements with his
 creditors, which could not be effected unless he was enabled to
 renew the lease of the premises he occupied. On learning that the
 house had been sold, he came down to the city to negotiate with the
 new owner, and to his astonishment found him to be the very man he
 had refused a meal to the week before .... "Sir," said
 "... You refuse to have me in your house I object to have you in
 mine: you will, therefore, quit the premises immediately." The
 fellow sneaked out quite crestfallen, and his creditors have broken
 him up completely. (Garies

Walters gains the upper hand in this situation because he is a property accumulator, rather than a renter or speculator. White men who rely on credit will ultimately fall under the sway of Mr. Walters, losing their self-possession to him. The landlord in Stevens's words is "broken up completely"--his self is destroyed as a result of his misuse of credit. Walters's example serves as a powerful model of how, by accumulating property, African American men can enact racial justice outside of the biased and racist legal system.

The novel's deep anxieties about credit and speculation echo throughout midnineteenth-century fiction. Because of the fluctuating value of new forms of wealth gaining prominence during the antebellum period, many antebellum domestic novels express similar fears that the value of the self could also fluctuate and be destroyed. (As Hawthorne warns in The House of the Seven Gables, the credit economy means "that someone is always at the drowning point" [39].) Like these texts, The Garies also emphasizes the stable-value home space, secured by a wife who does not enter into market relations. Yet unlike other domestic novels, Webb's fear of speculation is uniquely racialized. While the white characters in Webb's novel embrace the ephemeral forms of wealth that were beginning to dominate the antebellum economy, the African American characters retain their faith in stable value and material goods. Thus Webb describes George Stevens as a real estate speculator, who buys and sells property using credit, while Mr. Walters uses prodigious reserves of cash to buy property that--critically--he never sells. Walters therefore maintains his foothold in stable forms of wealth, and of course his self-possession is further secured by his wife, Esther. Throughout the novel whiteness is linked to the volatile commercial market, and Webb implies that there is no going back. White America has abandoned stable forms of wealth in favor of limitless speculation, and consequently whiteness is perpetually associated with the danger of disembodiment and disappearance. In Webb's novel in an amazing reversal of legal theory--it is blackness that represents an inalienable and stable property, and whiteness becomes a lack of property.

As a result, The Garies cautions against the enervating consequences of interracial mingling, as seen most clearly in the story of Clarence Garie. (17) After the riot, the lawyer of the late Mr. Gaffe decides that the young Clarence Garie should pass as a white person and attend a remote boarding school. (Notably, it is a white practitioner of the law who decides that Clarence should reject his African American blood and remove himself from the community.) Clarence does in fact enjoy his white privilege and soon shuns the African American community. He falls in love with and plans to marry a rich and beautiful white woman. Yet the cost of keeping such a secret literally eats away at him. As he tells his only white confidant: "I must shut this secret in my bosom, where it gnaws, gnaws, gnaws, until it has almost eaten my heart away....

It has kept me awake night after night, it haunts me at all hours; it is breaking down my health and strength--wearing my very life out of me" (Garies 354). Of course, when Clarence's blackness is discovered, he is disgraced. Rejected by his betrothed and white society at large, he discovers that he cannot reconnect with the African American community because he remains hyper-aware of the presence of his white blood.

In contrast, his sister Emily has happily rejected any claim to whiteness. Because she was much younger than Clarence when their parents died, it was decided that she could not pass, and so she remained with the free African American community in Philadelphia, staying at the Ellis' home. She eventually married Charlie Ellis, the promising male in the family, and she assumed the position of the ideal wife, removed from business dealings and committed to maintaining her new home space. As Anna Mae Duane has shown, Emily Garie's fate runs counter to the traditional tragic mulatto plotlines, in which the heroine dies at the close of the novel. Still, it is important to recognize that Emily secures her happy position by merging completely with her African American husband and through him the larger African American community. Her identity is secured in large part because of her rejection of any claims to whiteness. Ultimately, she escapes the plot of the tragic mulatto by refusing to see herself as mulatto at all.

While young Emily Garie avoids a tragic fate, her brother who has attempted to pass for most of his life succumbs to it. At the close of the novel, when Clarence's death seems inevitable, he returns to Philadelphia to be with his sister. His new brother-in-law, Charlie Ellis, picks him up from the steamer and immediately recognizes how illness has transformed Clarence. Yet Charlie reassures: "Ah, wait until we get you home, we shall soon have you better." After the remark, Clarence responds: "Home!... home! How delightful that word sounds! I feel it is going home to go to you and Em" (Garies 411-12). After years of self-destruction that resulted from his attempts to pass, Clarence acknowledges his black blood and finally finds his home, which is located in the viable, sustainable, and vibrant African American community, rooted firmly in the ideals of status. Once again Webb pointedly connects home with stability. Although Clarence is doomed, the novel ends with a series of marriages that highlight the continuity and constancy of the African American community in which the home is unsullied by market relations.

By presenting a thorough critique of white misunderstandings of property, The Garies recuperates classical self-possession as a possibility only for this community because it alone can maintain a domestic space separate from credit and speculation. Its reliance on status rather than contract enables it to defend itself against white racial violence, while white America risks its selfhood on forms of wealth that do not in fact exist. By exposing white America's fascination with contract and speculation, Webb subverts the prevailing legal fiction of whiteness as property.

Over the course of his only novel, Webb depicts free black men who seek and find self-possession beyond both the court system and white society generally. This self-possession is secured by owning items that are removed from the market and that will not fluctuate in value: most notably, land and wives. Yet even as Webb adopts the terms of what is arguably white self-possession, he does not envision an African American community that is subservient to white middle-class culture. The novel does not provide any white models of success. Instead, the white characters serve as cautionary examples of people whose pursuit of speculation jeopardizes their self-possession and hence their capacity for freedom and citizenship. Rather than endorsing white exemplars, Webb holds up Mr. Walters as his hope for black empowerment. Ultimately, it is as if Webb hopes that Walters's interaction with the hotel manager--buying the property and subsequently refusing to renew the manager's lease--will forecast the direction of the American nation. By critiquing white notions of property and value, Webb countered the legal fiction of whiteness as property with his own legal fiction: The Garies and Their Friends.

Works Cited

Best, Stephen M. The Fugitive's Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004.

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. 4 vols. 1783. New York: Garland, 1978.

Brodhead, Richard. Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

The Commonwealth ex relat. Susan Stephens against Clements, 6 Binn. 206 (1814).

Cover, Robert. "Nomos and Narrative." 1983. Narrative, Violence, and the Law: The Essays of Robert Cover. Eds. Martha Minow, Michael Ryan, and Austin Sarat. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1993. 95-172.

Coviello, Peter. Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.

Dred Scott v. Sandford. 60 U.S. (19 Howard) 393 (1857).

Duane, Anna Mae. "Remaking Black Motherhood in Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends." African American Review 38.2 (Summer 2004): 201-12.

Dubler, Ariela R. "Governing through Contract: Common Law Marriage in the Nineteenth Century." Yale Law Journa1 107.6 (April 1998): 1885-1920.

Franke, Katherine M. "Becoming a Citizen: Reconstruction Era Regulation of African American Marriages." Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 11.2 (Summer 1999): 251-309.

Harris, Cheryl. "Whiteness as Property." Harvard Law Review 106.8 (June 1993): 1709-91.

Hartog, Hendrik. Man and Wife in America: A History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The House of the Seven Gables. 1851. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1965.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. 1861. Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. 1680-1690. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1960.

Macpherson, C. M. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1962.

Peterson, Carla. "Capitalism, Black (Under)Development and the Production of African-American Novels in the 1850s." American Literary History 4.4 (Winter 1992): 559-83.

Reid-Pharr, Robert. Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Sklansky, Jeffrey P. The Soul's Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002.

Stanley, Amy Dru. From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Sundquist, Eric. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Webb, Frank J. The Garies and Their Friends. 1857. Frank J. Webb: Fiction, Essays, Poetry. Ed. Werner Sollors. New Milford, CT: Toby, 2004. 21-422.


(1.) For an overview of this reception, see Duane 201.

(2.) Dubler aptly describes mid-nineteenth-century marriage as a hybrid of both contract and status. Entering into marriage is a sign of contract, but once the contract is instated, marriage becomes a relationship of status. As Dubler claims, "Entry into marriage thus signified one's consensual, or contractual, entry into a fully formulated relationship. After the initial act of consent, mutual consent was insufficient to alter the terms of the relation" (1907). For more on marriage as a status relationship, see Hartog 96-100.

(3.) Jurists worried that a husband might use force to pressure his wife to surrender any property that she might hold in separate estate (generally through a trust from her father). Thus, many legal theorists argued that the common law's restrictions on a woman's right to alienate her property and labor was in fact for her own protection. If she could not sign away her property, the jurists reasoned, then her husband had no reason to coerce or threaten her.

(4.) In saying that "real" wives did not enter into contracts, I am referring to the legal fiction of marital unity widely embraced in mid-nineteenth-century America. Certainly, antebellum culture did not always operate according to these fictions. For example, abandoned wives occasionally did enter into contracts and start business ventures, and husbands and wives--though supposedly "unified," according to legal fiction--could live in separate domiciles hundreds of miles apart. Although legal practitioners recognized that marital unity could only truly exist in the language of the law, the fiction of marital unity "was so pervasive.., that it affected as well as reflected attitudes toward women and marriage" (Basch 135).

(5.) All of these texts give the reader an "insider perspective" to the real white home space and present it as troubled, violent, and even an inversion of the proper status relationship. As I have demonstrated, however, the condition of white marriage does hOt necessarily cause the African American writer to conclude that the status relationship is unrealistic or unattainable, even while these same writers critique the status construction of the toaster-slave relationship. Jacobs explicitly asserts that her portrayal of Southern marriage is more accurate than legal fictions: "I draw no imaginary pictures of Southern homes" (35).

(6.) Franke argues this point forcefully in her study of Reconstruction-era African American marriages.

(7.) An extensive discussion of the importance of the "court of public opinion" as a primary avenue for advancing African American rights is to be round in Jeannine Marie DeLombard, Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007).

(8.) For information on Webb's biography, see Eric Gardner, " 'A Gentleman of Superior Cultivation and Refinement': Recovering the Biography of Frank J. Webb," African American Review 35.2 (Summer 2001): 297-308. See also Werner Sollors, Introduction, in Webb 1-13.

(9.) As Coviello claims, "The free and enfranchised black citizen.., was an entity vastly more conceivable in the 1780s than in the 1830s. Similarly white maleness, though it did indeed offer many privileges, such as naturalization and the freedom from enslavement, did not itself guarantee an individual's civic status ....

[T]he essential principles around which the nation sought to organize its civic life were simply hOt identical to the discriminatory powers of race or gender. They had to do more directly, instead, with the qualification of property" (Coviello 30). For details on how state constitutions connected voting rights with property ownership in the early republic, see Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005), 27-29.

(10.) Sklansky emphasizes the ascendancy of the labor theory of property in the early nineteenth century: "As labor became the main measure of value, it was also deemed the basis of property. Ownership of one's labor and its products became widely regarded as the most basic human right, the material manifestation of 'self-command'" (19).

(11.) Macpherson drew on these concepts to formulate his influential theory of possessive individualism, which is what was frequently envisioned in the phrase "self-possession" during the nineteenth century (263-64; 269-70).

(12.) American jurisprudence has a long tradition of recognizing whiteness as property. Perhaps the most famous example from Webb's time was the decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which was handed clown the same year that Webb's novel was published. In this notorious opinion, Roger B. Taney claimed that African Americans were of an "inferior order." As Sundquist has claimed, Taney's decision blurred "the biological into the constitutional" (236). Such legal constructions of racial inferiority directly influenced the separate but equal doctrine confirmed in the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruling. Attorney Albion Tourgee, in his brief in support of Homer Plessy, explicitly addressed the ways that the courts as well as American society more broadly had consistently viewed whiteness as property. As he argued, whiteness was "the most valuable sort of property, being the master-key that unlocks the golden door of opportunity" (Tourgee, qtd. in Sundquist 247).

(13.) During much of the novel, Webb critiques Caddy's almost irrational devotion to domestic pursuits-atone point, her cleaning routine almost fatally wounds her brother--but in the riot scene he celebrates her method of defense as one of the most effective against the attacking white mob.

(14.) This formulation in American common law descended directly from Blackstone's highly influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765). According to Blackstone, a husband and wife share one legal identity. As he states, once a woman becomes a wife, her legal identity is subsumed by that of her husband, "under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs everything: and is therefore called in our law... a feme covert" (I:442).

(15.) By embracing the status ideal of marriage, reformers not only established African American men's self-possession, but they also argued for the fight of African American wives to maintain the same position as white wives: away from the labor market in order to act as a private, moral individual within the home.

(16.) See Brodhead 13-47.

(17.) Here I am arguing against Peterson's assertion that The Garies "acknowledges black dependence on white social and economic structures ..." (578).
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Author:Stockton, Elizabeth
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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