Slave codes

Slave Codes were sets of laws during the colonial period and in individual states after the American Revolution which defined the status of slaves and the rights and responsibilities of slave owners

Examples of Slave Codes

Virginia, 1639

Act XI. All persons except the African slaves are to be provided with arms and ammunitions or be fined at the pleasure of the governor and the council.[1]

Virginia, 1662

Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishmen upon a Negro shall be slave or Free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.

Maryland, 1664

That whatsoever free-born [English] woman shall intermarry with any slave... shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free-born women, so married shall be slaves as their fathers were.

Virginia, 1667

Act III. Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children that are slaves by birth... should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament.

Virginia, 1682

Act I. It is enacted that all servants... which shall be imported into this country either by sea or by land, whether Negroes, Moors, mulattoes or Indians who and whose parentage and native countries are not Christian at the time of their first purchase by some Christian... and all Indians, which shall be sold by our neighboring Indians, or any other trafficking with us for slaves, are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents and purposes any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.

Virginia, 1705

All servants imported and brought into the Country... who were not Christians in their native Country... shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion... shall be held to be real estate.[2]

South Carolina, 1712

Be it therefore enacted, by his Excellency, William, Lord Craven, Palatine.... and the rest of the members of the General Assembly, now met at Charles Town, for the South-west part of this Province, and by the authority of the same, That all negros, mulattoes, mestizo's or Indians, which at any time heretofore have been sold, or now are held or taken to be, or hereafter shall be bought and sold for slaves, are hereby declared slaves; and they, and their children, are hereby made and declared slaves....

Violence against slaves

  • Virginia, 1705

If any slave resists his master... correcting such a slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction... the master shall be free of all punishment... as if such accident never happened.

  • South Carolina, 1712

Be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That no master, mistress, overseer, or other person whatsoever, that hath the care and charge of any negro or slave, shall give their negroes and other slaves leave... to go out of their plantations.... Every slave hereafter out of his master's plantation, without a ticket, or leave in writing, from his master... shall be whipped....

The slave who, having struck his master, his mistress, or the husband of his mistress, or their children, shall have produced a bruise, or the shedding of blood in the face, shall suffer capital punishment.

Reading by slaves illegal

Some codes made teaching to mulattos, Indians and indentured slaves illegal.[3]

Any person or persons who attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall, upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.

  • Alabama, 1833, section 32

Any free person of color who shall write for any slave a pass or free paper, on conviction thereof, shall receive for every such offense, thirty-nine lashes on the bare back, and leave the state of Alabama within thirty days thereafter....

  • Alabama, 1833, section 33

Any slave who shall write for any other slave, any pass or free-paper, upon conviction, shall receive, on his or her back, fifty lashes for the first offence, and one hundred lashes for every offence thereafter....


Deep South

South Carolina established its slave code in 1695, based on the 1661 English slave code employed in Barbados. The South Carolina slave code served as the model for other colonies in North America. In 1770, Georgia adopted the South Carolina slave code, and Florida adopted the Georgia code.[4] The 1712 South Carolina slave code included provisions such as:[4]

  • Slaves were forbidden to leave the owner's property unless they were accompanied by a white person or had permission. If a slave leaves the owner's property without permission, "every white person" is required to chastise such slaves.
  • Any slave attempting to run away and leave the colony (later the state) receives the death penalty.
  • Any slave who evades capture for 20 days or more is to be publicly whipped for the first offense, branded with the letter R on the right cheek for the second offense, and lose one ear if absent for 30 days for the third offense, and castrated for the fourth offense.
  • Owners refusing to abide by the slave code are fined and forfeit ownership of their slaves.
  • Slave homes are to be searched every two weeks for weapons or stolen goods. Punishment for violations escalates to include loss of ear, branding, and nose-slitting (for the fourth offense, death)
  • No slave is allowed to work for pay; plant corn, peas or rice; keep hogs, cattle, or horses; own or operate a boat; buy or sell; to wear clothes finer than 'Negro cloth.'

The South Carolina slave code was revised in 1739 with the following amendments:[4]

  • No slave is to be taught to write, to work on Sunday, or to work more than 15 hours per day in summer, and 14 hours in winter.
  • Willful killing of a slave exacts a fine of £700, "passion"-killing £350.
  • The fine for concealing runaway slaves is $1,000 and a prison sentence of up to one year.
  • A fine of $100 and six months in prison are imposed for employing any black or slave as a clerk.
  • A fine of $100 and six months in prison are imposed on anyone selling or giving alcoholic beverages to slaves.
  • A fine of $100 and six months in prison are imposed for teaching a slave to read and write, and death is the penalty for circulating incendiary literature.
  • Freeing a slave is forbidden, except by deed, and after 1820, permission of the legislature (Georgia required legislative approval after 1801).

Some elements of the codes were rarely or laxly enforced as they imposed costs or limitations upon (politically powerful) slaveowners. For instance, well after 1712, slaves commonly worked for hire in Charleston.[5]

Tobacco states

The slave codes of the tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia) were modeled on the Virginia code, which was initially established in 1667.[4] The 1682 Virginia code included the following provisions:[6]

  • Slaves were prohibited from possessing weapons.
  • Slaves were prohibited from leaving their owner's plantations without permission.
  • Slaves were prohibited from lifting a hand against a white person even in self-defense.
  • A runaway slave refusing to surrender could be killed without penalty.

District of Columbia slave codes

Slaves were a common sight in the nation's capital. (The District of Columbia at that time included what is today the city of Arlington and part of the city of Alexandria, Virginia.) Harsh regulation of the urban slaves, most of whom were servants for the government elite, was in effect until the 1850s. Compared to some southern codes, the District of Columbia was relatively moderate. Slaves were allowed to hire their services and live apart from their masters, and free blacks were even allowed to live in the city and operate schools. The code could be used by attorneys and clerks who referred to it to draft contracts or briefs. By 1860, there were over 11,000 free blacks and over 3,000 slaves. Following the Compromise of 1850, the sale of slaves was outlawed. Slavery ended in 1862 and nearly 3,000 slaves were offered compensation. The official printed slave code was issued only a month before slavery ended in the District of Columbia.

Northern colonies

Slave codes in the northern colonies, before slavery was abolished, were less harsh than slave codes in the southern colonies but contained many similar provisions, such as forbidding slaves from leaving the owner's land, forbidding whites from selling alcohol to slaves, and specifying punishment for attempting to escape.[7]

Proper treatment of slaves

Southern slave codes made willful killing of a slave illegal in most cases.[8] For example, in 1791, the North Carolina legislature made the willful killing of a slave murder unless it was done who was resisting or under moderate correction.[8] Historian Lawrence M. Friedman wrote: "Ten Southern codes made it a crime to mistreat a slave.... Under the Louisiana Civil Code of 1825 (art. 192), if a master was "convicted of cruel treatment," the judge could order the sale of the mistreated slave, presumably to a better master."[9]


In Utah, the Act in Relation to Service provided several protections for slaves. They were freed if the slave owner was found guilty of cruelty or abuse, or neglect to feed, clothe, or shelter the slave, or if there were any sexual intercourse between the master and the slave.[10] The definition of cruelty was vague and hard to enforce, and in practice, slaves received similar treatment to those in the South.[11]

Due process rights for slaves

In Florida, a slave charged with a capital offense was entitled to legal counsel to represent him on the theory that the master should not be deprived of his property by hanging unless the slave got a fair trial.

See also


  1. "Laws on Slavery". Virtual Jamestown.
  2. Slave Codes of 1705
  3. 1 2 3 4 Christian, pp. 27-28
  4. Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Harvard University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-674-81092-9
  5. Christian, pp. 19
  6. Christian, p 30
  7. 1 2 Morris, Thomas D. (1999). Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860. University of North Carolina Press. p. 172. ISBN 0807864307.
  8. Lawrence M. Friedman (2005). A History of American Law: Third Edition. Simon and Schuster. p.163 ISBN 0743282582
  9. Utah Slave Codes 1852
  10. "Brief History Alex Bankhead and Marinda Redd Bankhead (mention of Dr Pinney of Salem)". The Broad Ax. March 25, 1899.


  • Christian, Charles M., and Bennet, Sari, Black saga: the African American experience : a chronology, Basic Civitas Books, 1998
  • Thomas Cooper and David J. McCord, ed., Statutes at Large of South Carolina, (10 Vols., Columbia, 1836–1841) VII, pp. 352–356.
  • B. F. French, Historical Collections of Louisiana:Embracing Translations of Many Rare and Valuable Documents Relating to the Natural, Civil, and Political History of that State (New York: D. Appleton, 1851)
  • Slave Code for the District of Columbia
  • Laws of the State of Alabama, 1833

Further reading

  • Goodell, William (1853). The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice: Its Distinctive Features Shown by Its Statutes, Judicial Decisions, and Illustrative Face
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