Rights of Slave Owners

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Rights of Slave Owners

As United States citizens, slaveholders enjoyed the same basic civil rights as did Americans more generally—such liberties guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution as freedom of speech and press, and the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the general government for redress of grievances. Yet, the rights of slaveholders were nonetheless unique, primarily because they claimed ownership over human beings. At the same time, because masters considered their bondpeople chattels personal (the legal designation for slaves in the Old South), their rights were similar to those of property owners throughout the United States. And although that similarity generally blunted potentially troublesome distinctions between slaveholders and non-slaveholders during the early national period, it ultimately divided Americans into geographically antagonistic camps by the middle of the nineteenth century.


American slave codes were some of the first gun control laws in the United States and typically contained provisions that prohibited slaves from possessing firearms. For example, section 64 of the District of Columbia's slave code provided that: "No negro or other slave within this province shall be permitted to carry any gun, or any other offensive weapon … any negro or other slave shall be liable to be carried before a justice of the peace, and whipped, and his gun or other offensive weapon shall be forfeited to him that shall seize the same."

This gun control provision only applied to slaves as free white people were allowed to own and carry weapons. In 1976, Washington, D.C., passed one of the country's most restrictive gun control laws that banned handguns in all D.C. households. On March 9, 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the law was unconstitutional because it violated a citizen's right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

SOURCE: The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia, Together with Notes and Judicial Decisions Explanatory of the Same. Washington, DC: L. Towers, 1862.

The notion that enslaved persons constituted personal property enabled slaveholders to defend the institution of slavery from outside, specifically governmental, trespass. Sundry state slave codes (accumulated and updated since the colonial era), and other legal enactments and judicial decisions, established the necessary local foundation for human bondage. Without positive legislative and juridical recognition, the status of slaves and the legality of slavery were insecure. In this way, the states were the principle guarantors of the institution of slavery. And state legislatures, even in locales in which slaveholders and their allies did not comprise majorities, hardly threatened an arrangement that enriched some, and provided the basis for political equality among white Southerners (because slaves were black, it was reasoned, whites were by comparison free, independent, and supposedly racially superior).

Yet, because slaves were held as property, slavery was not solely a state matter. On the contrary, property in slaves involved the national government as well. Among the original responsibilities of that legislative body was to preserve private property. Were that obligation otherwise, slaveholders (not to mention other large property holders) in the several states would have vigorously, if not unanimously, opposed ratification of the Constitution. Stated South Carolinian Charles C. Pinckney at the Philadelphia Convention: "Property in slaves should not be exposed to danger under a Government instituted for the protection of property" (Lewis, p. 271). That sentiment did not simply represent a consensus among Old South slaveholders, for it substantially guided the drafting of a new constitution in 1787. Although slavery was not specifically mentioned in the nation's founding document (at least not until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment forever abolished human bondage in 1865), slaves were anything but omitted from its language, and slave-related concerns were anything but neglected.

Under the Constitution, slave states received additional congressional representatives because 60 percent of slaves ("three fifths of all other Persons") were added to a given slave state's free population (Article 1, Section 2). Under the Constitution, the international traffic in Africans was permitted for at least twenty years ("the migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit"); not until 1807 did Congress debate the cessation of the transatlantic slave trade. Under the Constitution, (non-slave) states were required to return escaped slaves (persons "held to service or labor") upon the claim of their legally recognized owners. Those same states were also prohibited from granting freedom to runaway bondpeople (Article IV, Section 2). Under the Constitution, citizens could not be deprived of property without due process of law, nor could private property be seized without compensation (Fifth Amendment). Under the Constitution, states retained the powers not delegated to Congress (Tenth Amendment); and because the federal government had no specified authority over the institution of slavery, that provision facilitated a congenial relationship between the doctrine of states' rights and the proslavery defense of human bondage. In those ways, the (property) interests of slaveholders were addressed and arguably ensured. In those ways, the states and the nation-state extended special privileges to slaveholders. Those privileges were not necessarily exclusive, because conceivably anyone with the requisite amount of capital could enter the ranks of the master class.


Although the nation's founding document indirectly recognized human enslavement, the Constitution was not dedicated to slavery's preservation; nor was the Congress responsible for slavery's perpetuation. By the late antebellum era, however, many slaveholders came to view both as guarantors of slavery. The federal government, asserted slaveholders, pro-slavery polemicists, and southern statesmen, could not disturb the institution of slavery, but it could, should, and must extend protection. The arrival of radical abolitionism, in general, and the political problem of slavery in the Western territories, in particular, impelled slaveholders to demand a more explicit, indeed unequivocal, congressional recognition of the inviolability of southern slave property.

Thus, during the 1850s, many slaveholding southerners modified their traditional states' rights advocacy, espousing instead the broader doctrine of southern rights. And slavery was the foremost regional interest in need of safeguarding. To ensure the present and future enjoyment of property in slaves, southern elected officials proposed specific legislation, including the enactment of a federal slave code, and the adoption of a constitutional amendment securing slavery in the states where it existed. Although such propositions never entered into law, they nonetheless reveal that slaveholders were both jealous of their property rights in slaves and fearful of the safety of their human property. During the 1850s that jealously and fear developed into an unyielding resolution that Congress was constitutionally obligated to protect slaveholders' peculiar property, not only in the South and the developing West, but throughout the Union as well.


Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Slaveholding Republic: an Account of the United States Governments Relations to Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper Perennial, 1977.

Before the Civil War, Congress did not seriously hinder or challenge slaveholders' property rights. On the contrary, the Southern-dominated Jefferson Republican and Jacksonian Democratic political parties, and the frequent Southern dominance of the presidency, key Senate committees, the House speakership, and the Supreme Court significantly checked forces and developments hostile to the system of slavery for decades. Yet, the emergence in the 1830s of a radical abolitionist movement dedicated to immediately ending human enslavement; the several political crises after 1846 surrounding the status of slavery in the territories west of the Mississippi River; the seemingly increasing anti-slaveholder sentiment of Northerners following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, as illustrated by Northern assistance to runaway slaves (captured and uncaptured alike); and the election to the presidency in 1860 of a Northern candidate of a overwhelmingly Northern party, the Republican Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, pledged to the nonextension of the South's "peculiar institution"—such things convinced slaveholders that the security of their valuable slave property was uncertain at best, gravely jeopardized at worst. Such things, for slaveholders, represented disregard for Southern rights, in general, and a denial of slaveholders' constitutional rights, in particular.

In addition to the abolitionists' verbal assault, which condemned slaveholding as "man-stealing" and denounced property in human beings as sinful, governmental restrictions on slavery's westward expansion outraged slaveholders because, as they argued, it deprived them of equal access to western lands, and because it signified the unequal status of slaveholders (or Southerners, as they opined) relative to other Americans. Stated differently, legislation banning slavery in the territories was deemed an infringement on the property rights of slaveholders, and was interpreted as an insult against the South, its inhabitants, and its institutions. By 1860, most slaveholders had concluded that the system of slavery was best protected not in, but out of the Union (for if Congress could prohibit slavery from the national domain, it might also undermine slavery in the states where it already existed). Beginning in the winter of 1860–1861, slaveholders in the Deep South spearheaded the sectional movement to secede from the United States. They were very much the animating impulse behind the establishment of the Confederate States of America, in order to preserve their property rights in enslaved Africans and their descendents, and to maintain the social order and economic benefits that racial slavery helped generate.


Huston, James L. "Property Rights in Slavery and the Coming of the Civil War." The Journal of Southern History 65 (1999): 249-286.

Lewis, Jan. "The Problem of Slavery in Southern Political Discourse." In Devising Liberty: Preserving and Creating Freedom in the New American Republic. David Thomas Konig, ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Oaks, James. Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South [1956]. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

                                Raymond James Krohn