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Slave codes were elaborate sets of laws or statutes passed to regulate slavery in all its aspects. In civil-law societies, they were organized into specific codes, such as LE CODE NOIR in French Louisiana, which brought together all the laws and regulations pertaining to enslaved persons and free blacks. In the rest of the United States, however, the slave codes were more amorphous. The entire corpus of laws regulating slavery would be considered the ”slave code” for a particular state, though no state ever published all of its laws pertaining to slavery in any one place.
The CODE NOIR and other civil slave codes were based on Roman law, which contained a number of well-developed provisions regulating the status of enslaved persons. However, Roman slavery differed from chattel slavery in the Americas in several key ways. First, Roman slavery was nonracial in character. Race did not determine who could be enslaved, nor did it describe the limits of personal capabilities in the way that proslavery ideology did in the British mainland colonies and the United States from the late seventeenth century to the end of the Civil War. Second, the state of enslavement resulted from a variety of universal causes, including capture during wartime, satisfaction of debt, and punishment for a crime. Finally, under the Roman code, enslaved persons retained a number of rights, including the right to own property and the right to purchase one’s own freedom. However, at the same time, Roman law placed no limits on the punishments a master might inflict on a slave and allowed the master to kill a slave without fear of any legal sanction. Third parties who killed Roman slaves could only be charged with destruction of property. Furthermore, if a slave was used as a witness in a trial the law REQUIRED that the slave be tortured before his testimony would be accepted. In the United States, some masters (as well as third parties) were punished for murdering slaves, there were limits on the kinds of punishments slaves could receive, and it was illegal for the courts to order that slaves be tortured.
Early Development Of Slave Codes
The mature slave codes of the late antebellum South were products of years of statutory development. These codes regulated free blacks as well as those who were enslaved, and they often had provisions that affected whites as well. Many antebellum statute books had entire sections devoted to slavery. For example, the Georgia Code of 1845 contained forty-nine pages under the general title ”Slaves and Free Persons of Color.” Similarly, Title 30 of the Virginia Code of 1849, contained five separate chapters, gathered under the heading ”Slaves and Free Negroes.” Both of these codified sections contained scores of statutes that had been passed over many years and were now put together in one convenient place. Yet even these sections did not contain all the laws in force that dealt with slavery. Thus, the 1845 Georgia code had more than seven additional pages on ”Offences Relative to Slaves,” whereas other parts of the code also had references to slaves and free blacks.
The first Africans arrived in the British North American colonies in the early seventeenth century. Traditional chronologies date the arrival of blacks in Virginia as occurring in 1619. Initially, these blacks were treated as indentured servants, and some gained their freedom. Gradually, however, some blacks were reduced to slavery, while others remained free. Starting in the 1660s, Virginia began to pass laws to regulate slavery, but these laws were scattered and not part of any coherent legislative program.
The early laws of Virginia and the other colonies tended to regulate race and labor, as much as slavery itself. In 1640 the Virginia legislature passed a law requiring that ”All persons except negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined at pleasure of the Governor and Council.” The law was designed to provide for a defense against Indian attacks, and ”all persons” clearly referred to adult white males. The law did not prohibit blacks from carrying guns, but it did not require them to do so. This law may reflect a fear of Africans because they were unwilling immigrants to the New World, or simply because they were black. It may also reflect a belief that providing guns to Africans should not be mandatory because as non-Europeans they would not know how to use them. The fact that the law did not prohibit blacks from owning weapons suggests that there was a complex view of blacks at the time. Two years later the Virginia legislature provided for a tax on all male workers and all black female workers. This again may reflect racism, or it may merely point to the reality that black women were performing the same agricultural labor as white and black men. Whether or not it was intended to discriminate, this law had the effect of insuring that most black female workers would be sent into the fields, since their masters would be taxed as if all black female workers were field laborers. Some years later, Virginia applied the same tax rule to white female servants who actually did work in the fields. However, this law meant that the masters of white female servants could avoid the tax by keeping them out of the fields.
These early laws illustrate how race affected how people were treated, even before there was a system of slavery in the colonies. The net result of these early laws was to slowly stigmatize blacks to the point where all whites would begin to view them as different and inferior. Slavery did not begin to emerge in Virginia as a coherent system of labor and race control until the 1660s. Over the next three decades the legislature passed laws regulating slavery and race on a piecemeal basis. In 1662 the legislature decreed that the children of black women would inherit the status of their mothers, even if their fathers were free blacks or free white men. In 1667 the legislature declared that baptism would not lead to the emancipation of blacks already being treated as slaves. Three years later the legislature declared that free blacks (who at that point outnumbered slaves) could never have or control white indentured servants. In 1680 the legislature prohibited blacks from owning guns or swords, while also authorizing the killing of slaves who ran away and refused to return.
Consolidation Of Slave Codes In Virginia
These laws set a pattern that other colonies would follow up until the American Revolution and that the slave states would continue to follow afterwards. By 1705, Virginia had enough laws regulating slaves and free blacks to constitute a slave code. That year the legislature attempted to adopt a consolidated slave code with the passage of ”An Act concerning Slaves and Servants.” Running more than fifteen pages with forty-one sections, the law reenacted almost all of the colony’s existing legislation regarding blacks and slaves. The law also purported to repeal all previous regulations of slaves and blacks not incorporated into the new act. This was the first comprehensive slave code in the American colonies. It may also be one of the few instances where an American slave code attempted to consolidate all the legislation of a jurisdiction on the subject of slavery and blacks.
However, this important consolidation of the colony’s laws on slavery and blacks was probably not intended to be completely comprehensive. For example, the very first law passed in this session was titled ”An Act for Laying an Imposition on Liquors and Slaves.” This law regulated the importation of slaves and set out the taxes to be levied on them for the years 1706 through 1708. It seems unlikely that the legislature passed this elaborate revenue-raising bill at the beginning of its session only to intentionally repeal it later in the session. This example illustrates the persistent confusion over laws involving slavery in the colonial period. This sort of confusion would continue in the antebellum period. Similarly, another act passed that year prohibited mulattoes, blacks, and Indians from holding public office in Virginia. Again, it does not seem likely that the legislature passed this ban at the beginning of the session only to repeal it as part of the slave code later in the session. The same is probably true for ”An Act concerning Tithables” passed before the legislature adopted the slave code. This act made all ”negro, mulatto, and Indian women” responsible for paying taxes to support the colonial government; otherwise their owners or masters were required to pay the tax on their behalf. Most important of all, in 1705 the legislature passed ”An act for the speedy and easy prosecution of Slaves, committing Capitall Crimes.” Surely the later act regulating slaves and servants was not intended to repeal this law.
These laws, and others passed in 1705 before the 1705 slave code, suggest the virtual impossibility of ever consolidating all the laws and regulations of slaves, slavery, and free blacks into any single law. Even if the legislature had somehow accomplished this, and if the 1705 slave code had consolidated all existing legislation on slavery, the effort would have been short-lived. The new slave code was listed as ”Chapter 49” in the statutes of 1705. Chapter 50, the very next law passed that term, was ”An act to prevent killing Deer at unseasonable times.” This law had two sections that dealt with slaves. The first imposed a fine for masters who ordered their slaves to kill deer out of season. The second provided for the whipping of slaves who killed deer out of season on their own accord. Thus, immediately after Virginia supposedly passed a comprehensive and complete slave code to regulate slavery, the colony began to enact new laws that went beyond the code to regulate slaves.
The Purpose Of Slave Codes
TheexperienceofVirginiain1705wouldberepeatedby every American slave jurisdiction until slavery disappeared. Slave states passed laws regulating slavery at almost every session. These involved taxation, sale, punishment, and policing. The laws were all designed to accomplish three things.
First, the laws were aimed at preventing slave insurrections and rebellions. Because slavery relied ultimately on force, the law had to be forceful. Early slave laws, repeated until the end of slavery, made certain that masters, overseers, and other whites would not be prosecuted if they killed slaves through ”moderate coercion,” or if they killed slaves who were resisting authority. The laws made it an offense, sometimes a capital offense, for a slave to strike a master or overseer. The laws also regulated the gathering of slaves and their access to weapons or poisons. Along these lines, the laws of the late antebellum period limited gatherings of slaves and free blacks, regulated the religious services of free blacks, prevented free blacks from entering slave states, and prohibited slaves, and sometimes free blacks, from learning to read.
Second, the laws sought to regulate race. This was in part a safety measure, but it was also necessary to justify slavery within a republican society that proclaimed all people to be ”equal.” Thus, the codes insured that blacks, whether enslaved or free, would be subordinate to whites in all ways. Early laws banned interracial marriage but allowed white men to have unfettered access to black women by making it impossible for black woman, bound or free, from ever testifying against a white. Marriage of enslaved persons was a legal impossibility, and enslaved families were thus entirely at the mercy of masters and the vagaries of the law. The division of property at the death of a master, a bankruptcy, the need to move, or simply a shortage of cash could destroy slave families. Some free blacks voted in the South in the Revolutionary period, and they continued to vote in North Carolina and Tennessee until the mid- 1830s, but otherwise blacks had no political rights. They could not hold office, serve on juries or in the militia, testify against whites, or hold certain jobs that might endanger the white community. The slave codes, supported by the courts, made race a presumption of slave status.
Finally, the codes were designed to maximize the profits of masters. The object of the codes was to suppress slaves and blacks so that they could be exploited. The codes protected the property interests of the masters, allowing them to sell, barter, or even give away slaves. Because the laws did not generally recognize slave families, the sale of a slave was a simple matter. Some states prohibited selling infants away from mothers, but such laws could only be enforced in public markets. The codes allowed for private sale without a need to even register the sale.
By 1860 the fifteen slave states had elaborate laws, never easily consolidated, that regulated slavery and allowed masters almost total autonomy over their slaves. Short of murdering a slave or mutilating one, masters could punish slaves as they wished, use and abuse slaves with impunity, and sell slaves with more ease then they could sell real estate. Significantly, one of the major issues of the 1850s was the demand of the South that Congress pass a slave code for the federal territories. Without a law to enforce their property relationship and to suppress slaves to keep them in line, the master class knew slavery could not survive in the territories. Slavery required a legal system that could protect it and preserve it. The slave codes accomplished this.
- Finkelman, Paul, ed. 1997. Slavery and the Law. Madison, WI: Madison House.
- Morris, Thomas D. 1996. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619— 1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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