Slavery and Property

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Slaves were people who were property. In 1860, the aggregate value of the nearly four million slaves was more than $3 billion—the equivalent of roughly $58 billion in 1998. Slaves constituted 44 percent of all the South's wealth, with real estate—land and buildings—amounting to only 25 percent. A single slave represented a tremendous capital investment; during the 1850s, a young male slave in his late teens or early twenties might sell for well over $1,000.

As the antebellum Southern economy's most important assets, slaves were enmeshed in varying legal forms of credit and property relationships. The property interests in slaves could be divided in many ways. In his will, a husband might bequeath a slave to his widow for her use during the remainder of her lifetime; on her death, someone else—perhaps one of their children—might become the slave's owner. Likewise, unborn children could be the objects of property interests. A slave woman might be owned by one owner while her children, as they were born, could become the property of a different owner. As well, slaves were often leased, which gave the lessor and the lessee different interests regarding how well to treat the slave. A slave purchaser might also buy slaves on credit or might borrow using slaves as collateral. If the borrower failed to repay the debt, the sheriff might seize and sell the slaves on the courthouse steps. The creation and ownership of the different types of property interests spread quite widely Southerner's economic stake in slavery as an institution.

When a slave succeeded in running away, whoever held a property interest in the escapee lost wealth. For anyone with even a fragment of a property interest in a runaway slave, the runaway's capture raised constitutional issues of financial importance. The original Constitution guaranteed the return of runaway slave property in Article IV, section 2, and Congress enacted a Fugitive Slave Law in 1793. With the passage of another law on fugitive slavery in 1850, Congress greatly strengthened the protection that Southerners enjoyed concerning the return of their runaway property. Among other things, the 1850 law obliged Northern officials and citizens to participate in the recapture of runaway slaves.

Slavery raised other property-related constitutional law issues. Slave owners who traveled could not take their slaves into free states or free territory. As the United States expanded westward, the question of whether new territory and newly admitted states would allow slavery became a divisive national political issue. The missouri compromise in 1820 settled the issue for a time, designating certain areas as slave and others as free. With time, slaveowners wanted to expand into areas the Compromise had reserved for freedom. For slaveowners, the issue was their right to use their property as they chose. Opponents of slavery focused on the personal issue of the slave's freedom. The kansas –nebraska act in 1854 let the voters decide whether a new state should permit slavery, which led to armed conflict in Kansas. In dred scott v. sandford (1857), Scott claimed freedom because a former owner had taken him into free territory. The Supreme Court, with its infamous decision, declared the Missouri Compromise to have been an unconstitutional limitation of the property rights of slave owners.

The constitutional issue of slave property was not settled until after the conclusion of the civil war. During the course of the war, President abraham lincoln turned the conflict into a war against slavery with the emancipation proclamation. The ratification of the thirteenth amendment in 1865 transformed those persons who were slave property into free people.

Thomas D. Russell


Finkelman, Paul 1981 An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ransom, Roger and Sutch, Richard 1988 Capitalists Without Capital: The Burden of Slavery and the Impact of Emancipation. Agricultural History 62:133–160.

Russell, Thomas D. 1996 A New Image of the Slave Auction: An Empirical Look at the Role of Law in Slave Sales and a Conceptual Reevaluation of Slave Property. Cardozo Law Review 18:473–523.

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Slavery and Property

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Slavery and Property