Natural Law and Racist Jurisprudence in Early Virginia
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Science informed American jurisprudence during the age of the Revolution. Colonials used science and naturalism to navigate the wilderness, define themselves against the British, and forge a new national identity and constitutional order. American legal historians have long noted the influence of science upon the Founding generation—in particular on figures like Jefferson—and historians of American slavery have mapped the influence of science upon early American racism as organized and standardized in slave codes. Building on the previous chapter, this chapter seeks to synthesize the work of American legal historians and historians of American slavery by showing how natural law jurisprudence, anchored in scientific discourse and vocabulary, brought about biological racism that enabled laws regulating black bodies. In so doing, this chapter offers sustained treatment of law and science and their mutual influence upon slave codes, especially miscegenation statutes. Historians of slavery have acknowledged but never fully explained this mutual influence. Focusing principally on Virginia during the age of Jefferson (1743–1826), this chapter argues that early Virginians of the planter class constructed the black body as biologically inferior to justify and facilitate laws that treated blacks as inferior. This process allowed planter class Virginians to initiate lower-class whites into communities of white racial solidarity while maintaining the ideology of paternalism, which held that white domination of blacks was necessary for blacks to enjoy a decent quality of life. This chapter presents the danger of focusing on abstractions such as reason or natural law absent some anchoring in pragmatic considerations involving concrete realities.