Partus sequitur ventrem, then, was an important first principle in this nascent slave-owning society based upon race. Like all efficient legal rules, it achieved its aimhere, the maximum protection of property rightswith little or no intervention by the state or other third parties. The private conduct of men would have no serious impact on the emerging slave society as a whole. White men could engage in sex with black women without creating a class of freeborn mixed-race people to complicate matters. Men, who can produce many more children than women, and who throughout history have been less subject to social stricture for their sexuality, constituted the greater potential threat for bringing this class into being. Following the dictates of their English heritage would have required some white men to tell other white men what women they could and could not have sex with, knowing full well the day might come when others would have the opportunity to return the favor. Under the rules of the game the burgesses constructed, there was no need to interfere with other men's conduct, even as the efforts to control white women's sexual activity grew ever more strenuous. Whatever the social tensions and confusion created by the presence of people who were neither black nor white, Virginia's law on inheriting status through the mother effectively ended threats to slave masters' property rights when interracial sex produced children who confounded the supposedly fixed categories of race.
Excerpted from The Hemingses of Monticello © Copyright 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed. Reprinted with permission by W. W. Norton. All rights reserved.
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