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Debt and Default on the Alabama Frontier: Notes on a 19th Century Justice’s Ledger

The subject of this blog post is a ledger used by Justices of the Peace in Clarkesville, Alabama during the 1820s and 1830s. Justices of the Peace used ledgers like this one to record developments in the cases they heard. This ledger specifically deals with the complaints filed between neighbors for outstanding debts. In it, we see the financial mechanisms of an early 19th century Alabama frontier society. Thanks to Hudson Cheshire, our former research assistant and newly-minted J.D. for this post.

Debt and Default on the Alabama Frontier: Notes on a 19th century Justice’s Ledger

Hudson Cheshire

The subject of this blog post is a ledger used by Justices of the Peace in Clarkesville, Alabama during the 1820s. The ledger is about 200 pages long, with cardboard panels and a badly deteriorated leather spine. It is 14 ½ inches in length, 6 ¼ inches wide, and 1 ¼ inches deep.[1]

William A. Robinson, a Justice of the Peace of Clarkesville County, Alabama, began recording cases in this ledger in June of 1824.

Image of first page of Justices' Docket.

First page of Justices’ Docket

The last case recorded is from August of 1830. During this period, the docket went into the hands of at least two successive justices: Samuel Beckham, from July of 1827 to May of 1828, and Kendrick Ford from September 1828 to July of 1830. The successive justices continued to record developments in the cases first handled by their predecessors. The contents of this book were not, in all likelihood, a matter of public record, but instead a mechanism for recording, for future reference, whether disputes had been resolved. Thus, there is little in the ledger by way of common law precedent or factual background for any of the legal disputes.  In that respect, it is closer to an accounting notebook than a legal document. Still, it sheds light on the legal lives of Alabamians in the 1820s. To best contextualize the ledger’s contents, a few words are in order regarding Clarke County circa 1825 and the Justices’ legal duties.

Clarke County is located in southwest Alabama, just below the Black Belt and west of Monroe County, the hometown of author Harper Lee and inspiration for the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird. In the novel, narrator Scout Finch credits the events of the book to Andrew Jackson: “If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t?”[2] If the Creek War of 1813 accounts for the origin of Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb, it also seems to have been a major catalyst for population growth in Clarke County. While Alabama historian Thomas Owen writes that by the time of the Creek War, Clarke County was populated enough to “furnish many soldiers to Gen. F.L. Claiborne’s army,” he also notes that the greatest population growth occurred in the decade after the war. According to Owen, a tannery, shoe factory, water mill, “iron screw” (for cotton packing), and a sawmill were all erected in Clarke County between the war’s end and 1821.[3]

The Justices who kept this ledger lived in Clarkesville, which, in the years the ledger covers, was the county seat (in 1831 the citizens voted for the county seat to be moved to Grove Hill, “the geographic center of said county”).[4] That in this time Clarkesville was the seat of a rapidly growing county is interesting because this particular ledger is almost exclusively devoted to cases involving debt and financial obligations. Through the ledger, we see the financial interdependence of a growing rural community. We see the Justice of the Peace, not just as a public servant, but also as a tradesman, who played the role of facilitating financial transactions between the citizens of his community. Read the rest of this entry »