On H-Net, Timothy S. Huebner reviews Laura F. Edwards's new book The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South,
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). The book is based on micro-research in six counties in North and South Carolina. This passage from the review caught my attention, and it wouldn't surprise me if something similar were true in other regions, especially near the frontier:
Courts developed around magistrates in order to deal with more serious
offenses, but Edwards convincingly shows that in the final analysis
the people wielded considerable power within this system. Possessing
a deep sense of their responsibility to the community, as well as a
basic understanding of local legal processes, men and women--whether
black or white, rich or poor--routinely brought complaints against
others for breaching the peace. Such complaints empowered individuals
at the same time that they preserved existing hierarchy. "Local
officials considered complaints on a case-by-case basis, righting
specific wrongs done to the metaphorical public body without extending
additional rights to any category of dependents," Edwards explains (p.
110). Thus, local officials responding to complaints could "undercut
the domestic authority of one husband or one master" without making
any generalized rule that affected husbands or masters (p. 110).
I haven't met up with the book itself yet, but I hope to soon.