Slavery Codes and Laws

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Updated: May 28, 2019
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Slavery Codes and Laws essay

Slavery in the American history is both clear and ambiguous. Enslaved people were property owned by white people, treated as property and traded regularly. Although this marked a tragedy in the American history, the story of slavery still affects a lot of US resident till today. With the growth of slaves’ numbers there emerged the need to legalize, control and keep track of all slaves in America, thus our topic for this research paper. The Slavery Laws designed to keep slaves in bondage also served to link slavery with skin color. Two main areas of Slavery Laws included this concept: those laws forbidding inter-racial miscegenation and those laws subjecting all African Americans to legal and civil disability. In many states such as Massachusetts, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and South Carolina, intimacy between black and white races was forbidden by law.

Southern law circumscribed the family life of people of color in distinct and often violent ways, ranging from authorizing the sale of children and sanctioning the brutal beatings of family members to denying enslaved people legal names and limiting the property and inheritance rights of free blacks. By denying black people the right to legal personhood, white southerners tried to limit African Americans’ claims to other features that arose from self-ownership: the right to marry, form families, and inherit and convey property to kin…1

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The law of slavery evolved from the colonial area through the 19th century. It began in the 1660 were it was made explicit that Christianizing slaves doesn’t affect their status, and it was explicit that their children will become slaves as well. Children born of a slave mother in a state of slavery, whether married or not, follow the condition of their mother. They are considered immediately slaves, and they belong to the master of their mother. 2

When the number of African Americans grew in the colonies, the white settlers were afraid that a rebellion would occur against them. This fear of rebellion led to the creation of laws to control the slaves in America. Those laws were known as slave codes. Although each state in America had a different perspective about the rights of slaves but the slave codes were a common thing between the states. Slaves by law were considered property, they were not allowed to hold and own any property on their own. By the codes, they were not allowed to mingle and socialize with a white person. Also, they don’t have any rights in the court, if they were accused by any crime against a white person, the slave is doomed and of course the slaves were not allowed to have a jury trial, but if a slave was accused by a capital offense, he had the right to assign a lawyer and have a trial.

The first statute reflecting slavery in the South was adopted by colonial Virginia in 1660. That law recognized a class of Africans as life servants, and it established as a punishment for white servants who ran away with black life servants the service time the black servant would have been required to render. This rather brief and simple act gave way within a generation to a complex code of laws concerning slavery in Virginia, which was a pioneer in this effort.3 In the period between 1640 and 1660 there was couple of laws that excluded slaves from possessing weapons.

Another law targeted the children born from enslaved women, this law stated that those children were considered slaves as well. In the years between 1660 and 1680, many laws restricted the freedom of slaves. Even the religion did not help make slaves be free. There was an Act that said that baptism will be used as an argument for slave freedom. In addition, even free black women were taxed for their work but white women were not taxed. Even free Christians’ former slaves were not allowed to have Christian servants.

From 1680 till 1705, the laws of this area reflected pure racism and intended parting between blacks and whites, any white person who married a black one is considered banished from Virginia. If 2 people from different race were married in Virginia, they are allowed only to stay for 3 months and after that they have to leave the colony. In addition, if a child was born in a result of an interracial marriage, the child will be called a mulatto and his white mother will be fined 15 pounds sterling. If the mother cannot pay the amount within a month, she will subjected to serve 5 years as servant.

Other laws relating government offices were also passed in that area. In 1705, a law was passed dictating that free slaves of color will automatically lose the right to serve in a public office. Also, they were denied the right to testify as witnesses in court.

Massachusetts was the oldest state that allowed slavery. It was considered the first colony that legalized it. Same as Virginia, in 1670, in the Body of Liberties law, Massachusetts stated that any children born from an enslaved women are considered slaves as well. As the colonial and early republican eras progressed, Massachusetts banned interracial sex and marriage and engaged in fierce anti-amalgamation discourse, bolstering racial slavery and later establishing a framework for full citizenship that could be reserved for whites.4 On the other hand, Massachusetts had some laws that protected the slaves. For example, if a slave was abused by his owner and ran away from him, the fugitive law will protect him from his owner because of that.

Regarding the slaves’ trade, in 1672, Royal African Company was registered as the only company allowed to trade slaves between the two continents, that law created a pure monopoly for this company. The monopoly of RAC raised many disputes in the colony to control the slavery trade and by 1680 the General court of Massachusetts passed a law allowing the governor to sign off on any ship containing slaves before its arrival to Massachusetts ports. 1698, marked the victory over the RAC when a law was passed to take away the monopoly of the slave trade, resulting a change in the legal status of the slave from a person to a property.

The law of 1753 stated that slaves in Massachusetts were disciplined by whipping if they destroy public properties. Furthermore, laws were added to discipline slaves if they hit a white person.

Alabama slave code of 1833 was a set of laws that restricted slave’s lives in numerous ways. Alabama enacted its own set of slave laws that consisted of rules that govern slave ownership and slave movement through the country. Those laws were intended to protect the whites from blacks and where intended to control the slaves in all dimensions. Slaves for example were not allowed to hold any weapons, they can only carry the tools that were given to them by their owners. A slave cannot leave the property of the owner unless he has a written permission from his master. And he cannot move from plantation to another unless he has a written pass to do that. If a slave commits a felony but he is a first-time offender, instead of being sentenced to death, the slave will be hit on the face or breast in open court and subjected to whatever other kind of bodily punishment the court sees fit.

In Alabama, laws and codes were added to free person to protect the white citizens from growing the free slave’s population in the colony. No free slave was allowed to come across Alabama, but if they do and was captured the sentence was up to 39 lashes. If the free slave decided to stay after the sentence was done, then he/she will be sold as a slave. Another law was targeting education for free slaves, if anyone tries to teach a free slave how to read and write, this person will be fined up to $500. The laws in Alabama in the era also consists of banning any free slave to petition to free another slave and the sentence to that is 39 lashes.

Alabama had guards working in the swamps, poor places and forests to capture running away slaves. The reward was up to $30 per slave captured.

Across the years, strategies and strengths shifting with the possibilities for protest and change, the Black Alabama invoked by Selma’s first African American lawyer, J. L. Chestnut (1930“2008), has challenged state and local white regimes. For the Chestnut-minded, Black Alabama represents an activist polity attempting to perpetrate democracy in a historical locus of racist violence, foreclosure of possibility, repression, and economic inequity.5

The slave codes could differ from one region to the other, because indeed in the colonial times each colony was able to make laws for itself as was each state after the independence. But one thing that was typical about the slave codes at the time is that the slave had no rights that would be recognized by any free person. A slave could not sue, could not protect his own rights, and therefore there was this obvious distinction between legal rights for those who are free versus those who were not free. The slave codes were coming into a clear existence in the early 1800s and the laws were designed to strengthen the slave holder’s property rights in the people they owned. There were laws for example about capturing and returning self-liberated or escaped slaves reoffering the slave holder’s right to own the property.

One of the laws that regulated the relationships between slaves and colonists was the Louisiana’s Code Noir or slave code. This state has been ruled first by the France where this code was introduced. It was established in 1685 when the French colonies were present in the United States and remained in effect until United States took control of Louisiana 1803. The Code had 54 articles where it regulates the status of slaves and the relationship between the slaves and their masters. For example, the law forbids a white person or a master to marry his/her slave or have any kind of relationship with him/her. The law also stated two classes of servants, the free servants and the slaves. The free servant would be a servant that is hired by his/her master to benefit from his/her services in exchange of money or any kind of a certain price agreed on. A slave had no financial privileges like the free servants, they worked for free.

Slaves in Louisiana were restricted from work if they become very old or they get very sick. Also, it is required by their masters to provide food for them even if they cached a disease, slaves had the right to receive proper nutrition. Same as other state laws, slaves by law are considered as property, they can be bought or traded between masters, and they do not control their own destiny or life.

Also, holding weapons is not permitted for the slaves but if the slave works in hunting he can carry a weapon if he has a written permission of authorization from his master.

Another law gave the masters the privilege to punish their slaves if they were absents from their duties. And if a slave escapes from his punishment, his master has the right to arrest him even by force but not to kill him; and if the slave tries to attack his master, the master can “ by law kill him.

Slaves were not permitted to sell commodities, provisions, or produce without permission from their masters, and had no property which did not belong to their masters. Neither free-born blacks nor slaves were allowed to receive gifts from whites.6

By the end of the seventeenth century the slave laws in South Carolina had assumed definite form. Modeled on statutes promulgated in Barbados, these laws were the most draconian on the English mainland. 7 The Negro Act of 1740 was a series of laws designed to control the enslaved population and affirmed the white supremacy. The laws prohibited slaves to gather without the approval and supervision of their masters. Also, slaves were not allowed to learn how to read and write and they were not allowed to grown their own food. They were not allowed to get paid for work or move to another country.

Also there was some regulation on the labor in South Caroline. The laws for farms labor stated the hours and days for work. Those laws specified the schedule of the slave during his working hours, such as he needs to work with animals in the farm, take care of them, and feed them. The slave needs to cook and prepare the food for his master.

Labor is the key category for any historical understanding of the African American experience. Slavery was a system for the exploitation of labor, and its legacy has locked Black people more often than not into the lowest levels of income, the most dangerous and dirty jobs, and with the least job security.8

Some laws in South Carolina stated some of the slaves’ civil rights. They refer to them as a person of color and the law mentioned that this person has the right to hold a property and to have contracts; he can relish what he makes from his work and he can sue in court; and also he can request protection under the law. In court, a black person can testify in a condition where the case would affect the property of the person of color . Even the court system was established in a separate way for the slaves. If the slave commits a crime, a death penalty will take place. This law was not exactly enforced on a white person.

South Carolina also restricted black people from possessing any weapons, dealing with alcohol purchases like making and selling, and arriving to South Carolina without an initial record of good behavior . Also, the law required them to have written permission from their masters if they want to sell any farm produces. If they don’t have such permission, they will be accused of stealing from their masters.

Many of the slave codes were designed to add dimension to individual slave holders control over enslaved people, and to add a dimension of community control. Some laws prohibited slaves to gather at night or to see other slaves. Laws that dictated enslaved people not to supervise their own gathering, the supervision would be under their owner.

Other kind of laws restricted enslaved people’s mobility. The enslaved people could not be on the road during the day time unless they have a reason to be or a written permission from their masters. Some cities would issue slave passes so they can justify their presence in a specific location at a specific time. Also, slaves would need a legal pass if they worked as merchants or assisting white people in their offices. Those kind of laws were meant to create a social distance between free and enslaved people and were meant to give the slave’s holder the right to control, to police and subordinate their slaves. Again, the slave codes essentially granted the slave holder a protection sanctioned by the state. If the slave was damaged, ran away or stolen, the slave owner could be either compensated or the slaves would be returned to him. This is a way where their property is preserved, sanctioned by law, and this is one of the first ways that racial slavery really became codified in the new world.

The laws of slavery are extraordinary frightening and terrifying. They were constructed in an asymmetrical system where slaves’ masters have all the power and slaves have none. The slaves’ masters made the laws to legitimate their sense of domination from the rights to hold the slaves as property to the rights to discipline that property. And, by any chance the slave was killed as of act of correction then the slave master is generally not held responsible for that offense. Also, slaves were punished for some acts considered as offensive, and that offense is generally viewed as misdemeanor, in the few circumstance where the slave is prosecuted, the slave will be facing a judge where most probably he is a slave holder, so the chance of the slave to walk away from the prosecution is very low.

On the other hand, having a profitable system of a near dictatorial power brought the question on how this power could be enforced. The enforcement worked down on the ground. There are laws against slaves moving throughout the country side but often it is to the masters’ advantage to have their slaves move from plantation to plantation. The slave would become more valuable to drive his wagon from one plantation to another. There are laws against slaves practicing trades, but again it’s for the master’s advantage to have a skilled rather than an unskilled slave. A skilled slave is simply more valuable and he is worth more. Skilled slaves were often hired out, enhancing their exposure to a variety of people and perhaps giving them greater access to notions of freedom and liberty.

In general, slaves were and are classed by their contemporaries in the lowest and most dishonorable rank of society, expressed above all in violence against bodies and control over the bodies of the enslaved. Even when they have assumed quite high positions as domestic slaves, soldiers, or luxury slaves, their position has always been extremely precarious, “radically uncertain”, as Brent D. Shaw formulated it.9

The framers made the laws for securing slave property and policing the colored population as stringent and thorough as possible. These laws left an almost irreducible minimum of rights and privileges to those whose function and place were declared to be service and subordination.10

The laws of slavery created a lot of conflict and problems in the American society. It was a reason to have this over control of black people. Unfortunately it was part of the history put in place to regulate the fear of rebellion. Those laws were terminated after a long debate and tragedy between black and white people in the United States.

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Slavery Codes and Laws. (2019, May 28). Retrieved from