The Civil War and America’s Changing Legal Order
Written by: Laura Edwards
Laura Edwards, the author of A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, reveals the story of Bella Newton, an African-American woman who broke new ground by filing criminal charges against her white neighbor in 1869.
My book, A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights, really began with Bella Newton, an African American woman, who I first encountered in the archives more than twenty years ago, while I was researching my dissertation. In 1869, Newton filed charges against a white neighbor, Alexander Noblin, for assaulting her children, William and Susan. The children were walking home from school across Noblin’s land. Enraged, Noblin ordered them off. Then he tried to assault Susan, but was frustrated by William, who pitched a rock at his head—apparently William was a good shot. Noblin nevertheless delivered a parting volley. According to William, he “shook his penis at us.” In response, Newton did something that would have been impossible when she was enslaved. She filed charges and obtained an indictment against Noblin for assault.
I was completely taken aback by Bella Newton’s case. The local court records I was reading were filled with cases initiated by African Americans, often against whites. But there was something about Newton’s case that made the legal stakes of Reconstruction tangible for me. While I knew that the period was extremely violent, this case gave meaning to that knowledge by showing how inseparable violence was from daily life. Even children walking home from school could not escape it. In fact, they provoked it. In this context, the significance of Alexander Noblin’s actions are hard to miss. Like so many white men in the post-emancipation South, he was trying to reestablish the racial order of slavery. Newton was unwilling to capitulate. Her determination was striking to me. Even more striking, though, was her decision to mobilize the law in her fight.
When I first read Bella Newton’s case, I realized how deeply invested African Americans were in the law and how persistent they were in using it. Such actions changed my basic assumptions about legal history in this period, assumptions that were common twenty years ago and that emphasized the extension of rights to African Americans by political leaders. The policy changes of the period did transform the nation’s legal order, with three new amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as new state constitutions, which abolished slavery and affirmed African Americans’ civil and political rights. But, as Bella Newton’s case suggests, those rights weren’t just “extended.” To make them real, African Americans had to claim them and use them.
But there is more. As I came to realize over the next couple decades of research, such also changed the law’s substance and meaning in ways never intended, let alone imagined, by the nation’s political leaders. Policy changes altered the legal system’s structure, particularly in the South, providing African Americans direct access to it. Those changes, however did not alter meaning of rights, which tended to be fairly narrow, focused on access to the courts and property ownership. That did not deter African Americans from offering their own meanings, using the idiom of rights to articulate expansive notions about the kind of social order they thought the law should support—about what was right, in their minds. While Bella Newton used existing conceptions of rights to access the legal system, she was asking for much more. She asked the law to affirm her vision of just society: one in which her children could go to school and walk home in safety. Ultimately, cases like Bella Newton’s not only extended the reach and meaning of rights, but also introduced new conceptions of social order into the legal arena. That also changed my vision of legal history in this period. The law was not distant from people’s lives; it was created in their backyards as well in the nation’s statehouses, in a process that was deeply enmeshed in the lives of people like Bella Newton.