The People and Their Peace

Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South

By Laura F. Edwards

The People and Their Peace

448 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 25 illus., 2 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5932-2
    Published: April 2009

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Awards & distinctions

2010 Charles S. Sydnor Award, Southern Historical Association

2009 Littleton-Griswold Prize, American Historical Association

In the half-century following the Revolutionary War, the logic of inequality underwent a profound transformation within the southern legal system. Drawing on extensive archival research in North and South Carolina, Laura F. Edwards illuminates those changes by revealing the importance of localized legal practice.

Edwards shows that following the Revolution, the intensely local legal system favored maintaining the "peace," a concept intended to protect the social order and its patriarchal hierarchies. Ordinary people, rather than legal professionals and political leaders, were central to its workings. Those without rights--even slaves--had influence within the system because of their positions of subordination, not in spite of them. By the 1830s, however, state leaders had secured support for a more centralized system that excluded people who were not specifically granted individual rights, including women, African Americans, and the poor. Edwards concludes that the emphasis on rights affirmed and restructured existing patriarchal inequalities, giving them new life within state law with implications that affected all Americans.

Placing slaves, free blacks, and white women at the center of the story, The People and Their Peace recasts traditional narratives of legal and political change and sheds light on key issues in U.S. history, including the persistence of inequality--particularly slavery--in the face of expanding democracy.

About the Author

Laura F. Edwards is professor of history at Duke University. She is author of Scarlett Doesn't Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era and Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction.

For more information about Laura F. Edwards, visit the Author Page.


"Proposes an alternative view of the Early National period, one based on records that most historians still do not use. . . . Well worth reading."--Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"An authoritative study on the legal culture of the plantation South. . . . A great book! Highly recommended."--Choice

"Provides a richly textured portrait of a legal culture in which women, African Americans, and the poor played an important part. . . . Offers an important contribution to the literature on the history of the South."--H-Net Reviews

"The author's prodigious research in the extant legal records of the Carolinas as well as the challenging interpretations that emerge from this research are the study's great strengths. . . . Where this study succeeds is in its sophisticated analysis of a broad range of records that reveal important insights about ordinary people and their place in the early nineteenth century."--The Journal of American History

"An outstanding and groundbreaking study, one that will in all likelihood change the way scholars look at the law in the southern states for some time to come."--North Carolina Historical Review

"This book is destined to be a crucial work in American legal history, but its impact on other fields may be just as great."--American Historical Review