Slave Codes

views updated May 17 2018

Slave Codes

During the fifteenth century, as Portuguese explorers and traders moved down the Atlantic coast of sub-Saharan Africa, the Atlantic slave trade was legally justified by the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church as an extension of the Spanish Reconquest: a means to convert Muslim and other non-Christian Africans to Christianity. During the first two centuries of the Atlantic slave trade (c. 14401640), the Portuguese crown enjoyed and profited from the monopoly of trade in sub-Saharan Africa sanctioned by the pope.

Iberian law was deeply influenced by Islamic slave law, which was derived from the Qur'an. It was quite complex and contained provisions for humane treatment of slaves. It recognized several distinct, named forms of slavery, including the status of the partially free and their right to own part of their time as well as their production during their free time. Muslims were not to be enslaved. Slaves were usually non-Muslim captives taken in clearly defined, just wars. It gave positive encouragement to manumission.

During the thirteenth century, Toledo, Spain, was a major center for translations of works from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin. These Latin translations were often presented as original works. Although historians have long attributed the slave law of the Siete Partidas of King Alfonso X to Roman and sometimes to Visigothic law, these attributions need to be questioned. In Visigothic law, the distinction between slave and "free" dependents was un-clear. Roman law did not define a "just" war, nor did it touch upon the relationship between masters and slaves or the care or treatment to which slaves were entitled. Roman law gave the master the right to free the slave, but it neither encouraged nor discouraged this process. Roman law focused on defining the slave as a form of property and clearly stated that all the property of the slave belonged at all times and circumstances to the master. This element of Roman slave law can be found in the Siete Partidas, but it is contradicted by other provisions in the same law.

The relevance of the Siete Partidas to Iberian slave law in the Americas has been exaggerated. It dealt with domestic slavery and was grounded in feudal principles. It referred to slaves as "serfs" (siervos) and never used the word "slave" (esclavo). It stated that human beings were naturally free and servitude was contrary to nature. It gave masters full power over their siervos, but they were not allowed to starve them. In addition, they could not wound or kill them without a judge's order unless a slave was caught in sexual relations with the master's wife or daughter, in which case the master had the right to kill him. Slaves who were starved or gravely injured by masters had the right to complain to a judge, who could force them to be sold to another master. Neither Jews nor Moors could own Christian siervos. There were no provisions preventing the separation of families of siervos. The best explanation is that children born in the house of the masters (señores) were automatically free. An echo of this assumption can be found in several manumission documents from Spanish Louisiana that explained that a slave was being formally freed for having been born in the master's house. But the silence in Iberian law about protection of the family resulted in the highest level of slave family breakup in the Spanish American colonies, higher than in French and even in British colonies.

The crowns of Spain and Portugal were merged between 1580 and 1640, and African slavery began to develop in Brazil after this merger. The Siete Partidas of King Alfonso X was in theory relevant to both Portuguese and Spanish America. The Portuguese Manueline Ordinances of 1521 had little relevance to Portuguese America. They required the baptism of all black slaves and contained some very specific marketing regulations applying to finders of lost birds, slaves, and other property, but they were silent about treatment of slaves by masters. Portuguese wealth derived overwhelmingly from taxation of international trade and the creation of far-flung trading posts throughout the world. The bureaucratic and religious reach of the Portuguese empire was therefore weak. In early colonial Brazil, Portuguese settlements remained largely on the coast until the discovery of gold and diamonds in the interior at the very end of the seventeenth century. Laws protective of slaves, including the slave family, were promulgated in Bahia, Brazil, in 1720. They were contained in a large, general code called Constituições do Arcebispado da Bahia de 1720, which emerged from a meeting of priests. It provided that a master could not prevent his slaves from marrying and could not separate the members of slave families. These protective measures arose out of conditions in Brazil, where slaves were frequently married in the church.

In early Spanish America from the earliest years of colonization, the bureaucratic and legal arm of the metropolis reached far into the interior, where mining of precious metals was the major source of wealth. Nevertheless, there were very few laws or legal cases in Spanish America demonstrating royal concern with the protection of black slaves. Spanish law in the Americas focused on protection of Indians, not blacks. Indian slavery was outlawed, and slave law focused almost entirely on the policing rather than the protection of black slaves and on minimizing their contacts with and influence upon Indians. The Spanish slave code of 1789 containing protective regulations for slaves was copied to a great extent from the French Code Noir but without its clauses protecting the slave family. The 1789 Spanish code was successfully and formally abrogated by enraged colonists throughout the Spanish empire shortly after it was promulgated, and its protective provisions continued to be suppressed in the Spanish empire throughout the nineteenth century.

Misinformation has been widely spread by historians who deny the severity of slavery and racism in Latin America. In medieval Iberia, Slavic peoples rather than blacks were viewed as natural slaves. Indeed the word for slave, esclavo, means "Slav." But in Spanish and Portuguese America, slavery quickly became associated with blacks, and antiblack racism became and remains very powerful. Aside from varying legal traditions, the intensity and forms of racism throughout the Americas varied over time and place depending on a number of important factors. White blood in the subaltern population carried much more weight in French, Spanish, and Portuguese America than it did in the British mainland colonies that later became part of the United States. In Spanish and Portuguese America, corporatism was the foundation of law. It made legal and social distinctions based on comparative amounts of white blood within the population and the number of generations individuals were removed from slavery.

Thus, Iberian law made important distinctions among nonwhites, a very efficient mechanism of social control in societies where the Spanish and Portuguese were usually a small minority. Except in strategic colonies and at times and places where blacks and mixed bloods were especially needed for police and military reasons, the enforcement of legal protection of slaves and encouragement of manumission by colonial authorities were spotty. During the Latin American wars for independence, many mixed-blood and black slaves were manumitted by both sides in return for military service. Thus, colonial administrators in Ibero-American colonies used free black and mixed-blood layers within the subaltern population to control the slaves. Unlike Ibero-America, British America tended to lump all peoples with any degree of African ancestry together. Some scholars from the United States, impressed by these formal contrasts with racism in their own country, have at times unjustifiably accepted Spanish, Portuguese, and elite Latin American myths of mild slavery and benign race relations in Latin America. But throughout the Americas, restrictions on manumissions and racially exclusive attitudes increased over time.

British colonizers in the Americas lacked a tradition of slave law upon which to build. British law was based on common law rather than legal codes. British slave law was established over time through precedents set by case law. Early preoccupations were the distinction between slavery and indentured servitude and whether slaves who converted to Christianity must be freed. Once slaves were defined as property, what kind of property were they? Were they real estate attached to the land, or were they chattel to be mortgaged, inherited, and/or sold separately from the land, a process that undermined primogeniture? Could slaves brought to England, where slavery did not exist, be forced to return to America with their masters and returned to slavery against their wills?

French slave law was again different. Slavery did not exist in France, and the influence of Roman slave codes was not great. The Code Noir was first promulgated in 1685 for the French West Indies after a careful study of the conditions existing in these colonies. This code was eminently practical. It focused upon how to control the slaves through police measures, established the obligations of masters to feed and clothe their slaves, and restricted the master's right to punish the slave. These protective measures did not stem from humanitarian concerns. They were aimed at controlling mistreatment and exasperation of slaves to avoid theft, running away, and revolts. The original Code Noir encouraged manumission of slaves and gave full rights of French citizenship to all slaves manumitted in French colonies. It provided that masters, regardless of race, had to free and marry their slave concubines and free the children born of these unions or they would be confiscated for the benefit of charity. The first version of the Code Noir was promulgated when effective occupation was the basic principle determining which European power would possess a particular Caribbean colony. It was intended to increase the population considered French.

The Code Noir was modified for Louisiana in 1724. It was reissued several times and changed by royal decree for French colonies throughout the eighteenth century. Manumission became increasingly restricted over time. Nonwhites were increasingly discriminated against and could not, in theory, inherit property from whites, a provision that was totally ignored in Louisiana, as well as in the French West Indies. Mixed-blood elites arose in both Louisiana and in the French Caribbean, creating three-tiered societies in which the colored elite played a major role in the economy and culture. The free colored elite in Saint Domingue/Haiti initiated the Haitian Revolution, attempting to use the slaves for their own military purposes. But the slaves revolted against both the white and colored elites, destroyed slavery, and declared the second independent nation in the Americas. One of the greatest achievements of the French Revolution, inspired and enforced by the slave revolt in Saint Domingue/Haiti, was the unanimous vote in the French General Assembly in 1794 outlawing slavery in all French colonies and giving full rights of French citizenship to the former slaves. This legislation was annulled by the Napoleonic reaction in France. Fear of slave revolts inspired by the Haitian Revolution became a major factor in sharply restricting manumission of slaves and increasing racial discrimination during the nineteenth century in the United States and in Cuba as their slave plantation systems reached their highest levels of wealth, power, and influence.

Criticism of the widely held myth of benevolent slavery and mild race relations in Latin America is growing. This myth arose as a justification for slavery in Latin America. It has been widely disseminated by mainly white historians in the United States, as well as by a few scholars in Latin America. This myth makes it hard to combat antiblack racism in Latin America because its very existence is denied. It is now being forcefully rejected by the Afro-Latino population throughout America, including in the United States.

See also Black Codes


Finkleman, Paul, ed. Slavery and the Law. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1996.

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Social Control in Slave Plantation Societies: A Comparison of St. Domingue and Cuba. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

King, P. D. Law and Society in the Visigothic Kingdom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Lang, James. Portuguese Brazil: The King's Plantation. New York: Academic Press, 1979.

Ordenações Manuelinas (Manueline Ordinances). Complete text in Portuguese available from <>.

Pottonaiis, Dandrea de. Las Siete Partidas. Vol. 2, Partida Quarta. Salamanca, Spain: 1555.

Watson, Alan. Roman Slave Law. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Willis, John Ralph, ed. Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa: Islam and Ideology of Enslavement. London and Totowa, N.J.: F. Cass, 1985.

gwendolyn midlo hall (2005)

Slave Codes

views updated May 21 2018

Slave Codes





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.


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.


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 experience of Virginia in 1705 would be repeated by 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.

Paul Finkelman

Slavery and Slave Codes

views updated Jun 11 2018

Slavery and Slave Codes


European Law. English common law did not describe slavery, though it did describe varieties of relations between superiors and inferiors, for example, masters and servants and parents and children. There were, therefore, no specific English legal precedents for slavery in the colonies. Yet slavery did develop in the 1600s, spreading to all the English colonies. The number of slaves grew rapidly in colonies such as Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina. But a social system like slavery needed legal support in order to survive. Because Spain and Portugal had incorporated Roman law into their legal systems, those countries and their colonies could easily borrow from the ancient statutes to govern the Latin American slavery of the 1600s.

Development. Britain did not use Roman jurisprudence, and the common laws silence on the subject meant that the English colonies would develop their own law of slavery. Slavery developed in the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia and Maryland first as a socioeconomic practice and only afterward as a legal institution. The earliest Africans in Virginia were probably indentured servantsworkers who labored for a set number of years. Gradually during the 1600s it became accepted that whites could be indentured servants but that blacks could be slaves or permanent servants, a status that would pass on to their children.

Virginia. After the mid 1600s slavery came to be sanctioned by statutes passed by the various legislatures. The first of these slave codes was enacted in Barbados in 1661; the most complete was adopted in South Carolina in 1740. Virginias assembly passed several such laws. A 1662 statute made the child of a slave woman a slave, even if the father were free. A 1669 law declared that if a slave died while resisting his master, the master could not be charged with a felony; this was based on the assumption that no master would deliberately choose to kill his own slave, and therefore that the death must be presumed to have been unintended. And a 1680 law inflicted twenty lashes on any negro or other slave who chose to carry a weapon or to depart from his masters ground without a certificate from his master, mistress or overseer.

South Carolina. The slave code of 1740 in South Carolina was passed after the infamous Stono Rebellion, an uprising that resulted in far more black deaths than white ones. The most comprehensive of the colonial codes, it greatly influenced the slave codes in the South from 1776 to 1861. It stipulated that negroes, mulattos (mixed white and black background), Indians, and mestizos (mixed Indian and white parentage) were to be assumed to be slaves unless the contrary can be made to appear. Slaves could travel only with written permission of their masters and were subject to the death penalty for homicide or for attempting to raise an insurrection. They could suffer death for lesser crimes as well, such as maliciously destroying any stack of rice, corn or other grain or setting fire to any tar kiln, barrels of pitch, tar, turpentine or rosin. If accused of such a crime, the slave was entitled to a trial before two justices, but they benefited from fewer legal protections than did whites.

The Spanish. Spain transplanted its laws of slavery to its American provinces. The Spanish codes, since they grew out of Roman precedents, were not based on race, while English colonial statutes were decidedly racist. While slavery throughout the Americas was racist for its enslavement of non-Caucasians, English slave owners wrote this racism into the law itself.


Kermit Hall, William Wiecek, and Paul Finkelman, American Legal History: Cases and Materials (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991);

Alan Watson, Slave Law in the Americas (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989).

Slave Codes

views updated May 21 2018

Slave Codes

The white male political and social power structure in the American colonies and slaveholding states needed an effective way to regulate and control the African slave population and keep them subjugated to white society. As the population of enslaved people of African descent grew in America, individual colonies and states began to pass and enforce statutes and other laws that severely restricted black slaves from enjoying even the most basic of human rights, like the right to marry and to keep one's family intact. Citizens of the American colonies and United States were worried about slave insurrections and collaborations between lower-class, indentured white servants and African slaves, a fear that was not unfounded. These restrictive laws were called slave codes and existed throughout the American colonies from the early 1600s and in the United States through the end of the Civil War.

The slaveholders feared not only the possibility of slave insurrections and collaboration between slaves and white indentured servants; more generally, they feared that the mixing of the races would lead to the deterioration of the political, socioeconomic, and legal power of those white Americans who controlled American society. In the majority of the slaveholding states, slaves of African descent could not marry, could not own, buy, or sell real estate or personal property, were prohibited from learning to read and write, and were forbidden to assemble with other African slaves for religious ceremonies or for any other purposes.

The slave codes reinforced the low status and positions of servitude that African American slaves held in Southern society; most of the slaveholding, white citizens believed that slaves of African descent were inferior beings rightfully within the complete control of the white people who owned them. For example, according to Article 35 of the Louisiana Civil Code, "[a] slave is one who is in the power of his master, to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labour; he can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire any thing but what must belong to his master" (Davis 1845, p. 1). In addition, under the Louisiana slave law, it was legal for any free white person to seize and reprimand any slave of African descent who was away from his usual place of work or residence and who was not in the presence of a white person. Even if the person who found an unaccompanied black slave was not the slave's owner, the free white citizen was authorized to use weapons against the slave to prevent him from resisting or from trying to escape. He could even kill the slave if the slave assaulted or struck a free white person. Similarly, under the Louisiana slave code, if a slave willfully struck his master, mistress, or white overseer and the blow caused bruising or bleeding to any of the people mentioned, he would receive the penalty of death.

Under the slave codes of the majority of slaveholding states, an African American slave could not testify against a white American citizen in either a criminal or civil lawsuit, and could not be a party to any lawsuit, except a freedom suit. If a slave were the only witness to a crime, this would not be enough to uphold a conviction of a white American citizen. These two prohibitions had an adverse effect on the black slaves who endangered themselves by testifying against free white people, as well as American society in general, because many people were set free after committing heinous crimes because the only witnesses were slaves of African descent. By restricting the rights of members of American society who were not free under the law, and by barring the testimony of African American slaves, enactors of the slave codes effectively interfered with the rights and safety of other citizens too. These types of restrictive provisions were typical of the slave codes enacted in other slave states and existed until the end of the Civil War in 1865, when they were replaced by Black Codes that restricted the rights of the newly freed African Americans.


Davis, Edward M. Extracts from the American Slave Code. Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, 1845. Available online in Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America. Gale. Available at

Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr.. In the Matter of Color, Race, and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Stroud, George M. A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America. Philadelphia: Kimber and Sharpless, 1827. Available online in Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America. Gale. Available at

Wheeler, Jacob D. A Practical Treatise on the Law of Slavery: Being a Compilation of All the Decisions Made on That Subject, in the Several Courts of the United States. New York: A. Pollock Jr., 1837. Available online in Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America. Gale. Available at

                                       Jocelyn M. Cuffee

Slave Codes

views updated May 29 2018


Beginning in the mid-1600s, the American colonies began enacting slave codes into law. These laws enforced the system of bondage by depriving slaves of their civil rights, protecting the rights of the owners, and designating slaves as the property of their masters. Slaves were prohibited from owning weapons, receiving an education, meeting among themselves, moving about without their master's permission, and from testifying against white people in a court of law. Slaves were also treated differently than whites within the justice system: if a black man broke the law, he was punished more severely than was a white man who broke the same law; less severe punishments were given to white men who committed crimes against blacks.

After the American colonies fought for and won independence from Britain (in the American Revolution, 177583), slavery began to disappear from the northern states. Abolitionists (those who opposed slavery and lobbied for it to be abolished) grew in number and the economy of the North became increasingly industrial. The existence of northern "free states" and Great Britain's abolition of slavery throughout its empire (1833) gave rise to the "underground railroad." Along this route, escaped slaves traveled from station to station where they were harbored until they reached freedom in a free state or in Canada. The escape of slaves threatened the South's economy, which had become increasingly dependent on agriculture and slave labor. Southerners complained the fugitive slave law passed by Congress in 1793 did not go far enough to protect their interests. In 1850, a second and more stringent fugitive slave law was passed. The law accompanied the Compromise of 1850, which dealt with the admission of Texas to the Union and the territories in the Southwest that were newly annexed from Mexico (in the Mexican War, 184648). The 1850 law required all citizens to obey the 1793 law; it also prohibited a jury trial for fugitives and denied them the right to testify.

In the 1800s southern lawmakers enacted legislation at the state level to further tighten the slave codes: Any action by a black or a white person that threatened the system of bondage was made into a serious crime. The slave codes, harsh and desperate attempts to preserve the South's agrarian lifestyle, fueled the abolitionist movement to end slavery. The American Civil War (186165) spelled the end of bondage but it would be another one hundred years before the civil rights of the nation's African American citizens were adequately protected by the legal and justice systems.

See also: Abolition, Slavery, Underground Railroad