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Before the Civil War and emancipation, millions of human beings were enslaved across the United States. Most of these people lived on farms and plantations across the southern part of the nation. Scholars have tended to think of slavery as a form of private despotism—oppression undertaken under the color of the private law of property. Alongside this despotic private sphere, ran a weak public sphere of county court government dominated by the planter elite. These counties provided few services, and authorized the planters who controlled them to act as they pleased on their private plantations. The people that were enslaved were thus outside of the scope of public governance — brutally excised from the exclusively white and male political community. This Essay asks: What if, instead of dividing antebellum government into a weak public sphere protecting a despotic realm of private control by white elites, we conceived of the project of government and domination as unitary? What if we rejected the distinction between public and private and looked instead at where power was being wielded and by whom? What if we understood government not as a formal institution but rather as the place where governance happened in day-to-day life? What if, in short, we understood the plantation as a form of local government? Once we understand the plantation as a form of local government that was prevalent and, in some places, dominant across the South, a few things become clear. First, that the idea of the antebellum South as a place of little government and enlarged personal freedom is a fiction. The despotic government of millions of humans on the plantation was extremely intrusive on the lives and liberties of those who were governed. More than this, county governments were not weak so much as they were shells that both delegated power to planters and protected those planters from public oversight and accountability as they governed as despots. This reframing is primarily a historical intervention, but it also raises questions about the nature of localism today. Many local governments in the United States today appear weak but, in practice, operate as “public” shells through which power is delegated to property owners so that they may protect their “communities” from integration, redistributive taxation, and collective regulation. Although the chains of causation between past and present are attenuated, plantation localism echoes through these structural resonances in ways that should unsettle us.


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16 May 2023
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  • Subject
    • Civil Rights and Discrimination

    • Human Rights Law

    • Legal History

    • Race and Ethnicity

    • State and Local Government Law

  • Journal title
    • Fordham Urban Law Journal

  • Volume
    • 50

  • Issue
    • 4

  • Pagination
    • 771-796

  • Date submitted

    16 May 2023