Good Behavior Bond(age): Methods of Control from Antebellum Virginia

Kusick, Amanda, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hill Edwards, Justene, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia
Goluboff, Risa, LAW, University of Virginia School of Law

The good behavior bond was a legal device which, at English common law, was used to monitor those of poor character or “ill fame.” Historically, the bond granted broad discretion to justices of the peace to determine who posed a threat to the safety or moral norms of the community. When implemented in the US, where slavery was a defining influence on the laws of the states, the bond for good behavior took a new dimension. It became a powerful tool for monitoring the behavior and controlling the movement of free Black people in the antebellum South. In Virginia particularly, the bond for good behavior was employed to address the fears of white property-owners as the free Black population of the state increased. Ultimately, this legacy of the good behavior requirement is reflected in current Virginia law, which grants judges broad discretion to determine what constitutes “good behavior” for an individual released on a suspended sentence.

The goal of this essay is twofold. First, it uncovers a pattern in the antebellum South of requiring free Black people to comport with an arbitrary standard of good behavior, aimed at preserving the status quo of American slavery. Second, it draws attention to a unique aspect of Virginia law which retains techniques that were devised to control the behavior and movements of formerly enslaved people. It seeks to expand the historical analysis of the good behavior requirement, which suggests an explanation for Virginia’s unique approach to revocation of suspended sentences.

MA (Master of Arts)
Slavery, Good behavior, Virginia, Suspended sentence
Issued Date: