Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Martin Kreiswirth


This dissertation examines the legal construction and development of racial difference as considered in literature written or set during the final years of American slavery. While there had consistently been a conceptual correspondence between black skin and enslavement, race or racial difference did not become the unqualified explanation of enslavement until fairly late in the institution’s history. Specifically, as slavery’s stability became increasingly threatened through the nineteenth century by abolitionism and racial slippage, race became the singular and explicit rationale for its existence and perpetuation. I argue that the primary discourse of this justificatory rationale was legal: through law race and its meaning was finally determined. However, as there was not a substantial body of legal texts, such as legislation and judicial opinions, defining race prior, legal determinations of race during this brief and tumultuous period ultimately produced race in service of slavery.

To frame and understand these legal issues, my dissertation turns to nineteenth-century American literature. Because of the elusive nature of racial difference, literature provides a means to reflect upon and critique the law’s complicity in producing race. I begin with an overview of the difficulty of understanding and defining race as a concept, as well as the reasons why and when race became definitive of American slavery. I then turn to Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) which explores how race came to signify wrongdoing as a consequence of race-based slavery. I then discuss how knowledge of racial difference, characterized by its uncertainty, was stabilized by gender. As considered in Lydia Maria Child’s 1867 novel, A Romance of the Republic an individual’s uncertain racial identity was legally determined by recourse to his or her mother’s. The next chapter examines Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, published in 1894, which refutes the very existence of a racial difference, suggesting its legal existence is arbitrarily produced for the purposes of slavery. Finally, I conclude with a consideration of the limits of, and unexplored issues raised by, this project.