Teaching and doing digital history.

Reflections on Discipline and Punishment

Edward Ayers, Vengeance & Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (1984)

Edward Ayers, in Vengeance & Justice, explores the rates and types of crime patterns in the South. Broadly, he is taking a quantitative approach to understand how crime and punishment fit together, how they changed before and after the Civil War, how they differed across sub-regions in the South and how they were resisted by Southerners of both races. While the subject of his book seems to span the entire South (and the North in come cases), the bulk of his research spans only three communities in Georgia, each representing an important Southern subculture: urban, rural black belt, and upcountry. His framework and approach to the research, specifically in these three regions is appealing to me on a variety of levels. The same approach can be used to understand women and crime across Virginia.

Ayers’ community study across the 19th century allows him to chart the changes over time and also compare these communities to each other, a particular strength. Ayers’ approach firmly ties crime and punishment to political, economic and social catalysts, if not so much to the law itself. For example, he argues that prior to the war, trends in crime waves among city dwellers mirrored market ups and downs, whereas the rural areas remained more self sufficient with their crimes independent of market forces. (99) Once Reconstruction pulled the South into the broader markets, crime trends changed to reflect this.

Ayers suggests a continuum of crime that parallels economic development across America broadly with the urban North at one extreme and the rural South at the other. The challenge of course is that while he’s reading out from three communities in Georgia, the “North” and the “South” become monoliths devoid of subtlety and nuance. While his argument is compelling, it’s hard to tell where Georgia ends and the South begins. Furthermore, recent work on Southern history, Reconstruction and slavery have basically rendered a monolithic South unreliable.

Speaking of slavery, Ayers offers some interesting observations about slaves and crime that should prove important for my own work. He argues that prior to the war, blacks had rare encounters with the legal system, mostly because the slave system was the most significant form of control in the South. Most violent crime handled by the state was among whites, with black offenders relegated to the control of their masters, or the discipline of the churches to which they belonged. The changes on society brought by the War and Reconstruction led to the state assuming control over black criminals; more blacks were prosecuted and crime increased among the rural populations. I’m curious to see if Virginia’s crime records show the same patterns before and after the war.

Among all his talk of honor and violence, there is a curious lack of discussion about gender and masculinity.1 He seems to weave class and race nicely into his study, but it’s unclear if these patterns have anything at all to do with gender. One assumes the bulk of the crimes are committed by males, but there’s no specific discussion of it. Likewise, Ayers is content not to define “crime” at all, despite the fact that he seems to recognize that crime is ultimately defined and prosecuted by the dominant classes. A particular strength is that he acknowledges that crime is mostly political, reflecting and reinforcing existing systems of power, but the powerful systems in his study are racial and classed. While much has been written elsewhere of the influence and import of Southern white womanhood, it makes no appearance here. As such, my own research will fit nicely among the paths Ayers has cleared with this work.

Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2002)

Banner, in The Death Penalty, offers an excellent synthesis on the history of the death penalty in the United States. Banner combines original research with secondary sources to help outline the trajectory of the debates and history of capital punishment. Because of Virginia’s good records, he does provide details about the role capital punishment played in the Commonwealth, especially with regard to slave laws. ┬áHe includes a particularly strong chapter on the relationship of capital punishment in the South to Northern penal reformers. In it, he argues that slavery created the difference that kept the death penalty strong in the South, even while it diminished in the North. His notes are strong and should provide a nice trail for me to follow.

Victor Streib, The Fairer Death: Executing Women in Ohio (2006)

Streib, in The Fairer Death, provides a quick snapshot of the death penalty in Ohio, the women who were executed there and those sitting on death row. I had high hopes for this book, thinking it would provide me with a way to approach executions of women in Virginia. While the book offers interesting factual tidbits about the death penalty, it’s remarkably ahistorical and clearly a republish of research from other earlier articles. I would be better served to mine the notes for the original articles and read those.


  1. Bertram Wyatt Brown published Southern Honor around the same time and includes discussions of masculinity in ways Ayers does not. It could be argued that Ayers, who knew about Brown’s impending work, adjusted his own so that the two would fit together. []

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