Thursday, December 20, 2007


SLAVE CODES Evolving piecemeal from the late seventeenth century through the Civil War era during the 1860's, the so-called slave codes or laws throughout the slave states repre­sented statutory attempts to define the status and regulate the lives of African American slaves. In most states, the slave codes defined the slave's status as being dual in nature. Alabama's legal code of 1852, for example, confirmed the slave's status as both a thing (property owned by a master who was due the slave's "time, labor and services") and as a person (in the sense that the master was obligated to treat a slave "humanely" and to provide the essentials of life such as food and clothing). Despite this significant juxtaposition, the slave's status as a person was invariably subordinated to his status as property. According to historian Kenneth M. Stampp, "throughout the ante-bellum South the cold language of statutes and judicial decisions made it evident that, legally the slave was less a person than a thing."

Although there were variations from state to state, the general point of view that a slave was "less a person than a thing" was reflected in all of the slave codes. Strictly speaking, the slave was regarded as the legal and absolute chattel of his master. As such, he could be bought, sold, traded, used as security or collateral, left in a will as inheritance, auctioned and, occasion­ally, awarded as a prize in a lottery or raffle. Being a chattel and, therefore, devoid of a legal personalty, a slave was not permitted to testify in court, except against another slave or a "free Negro." This prohibition, of course, had the effect of nullifying the master's obligation to treat his slaves "humanely," since a slave could not offer legal testimony in his behalf or against the master. Additionally, slaves were prohibited from buying or selling goods and from entering into contracts (in­cluding a marriage contract). The ownership of property by slaves was generally prohibited, though some states did allow for the ownership of some types of personal property.

Basic to all antebellum slave codes was the requirement that slaves submit to their masters absolutely, that they respect white people and that they "keep their places." The Louisiana code of 1806, for example, proclaimed that a slave "owes to his master, and to all his family, a respect without bounds, and an absolute obedience." A slave could not strike his master or any white person, even in self defense. He was not permitted to leave the plantation without permission; he was not allowed to possess firearms and, in Mississippi at least, could not beat drums or blow horns. Additionally, the slave was not permitted to learn to read or write; nor could he possess liquor or purchase it without the authorization of his master. Freedom of assembly was flatly prohibited by most of the state slave codes which, in turn, were often supplemented by local regulatory measures. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, slaves were for­bidden to smoke, swear, walk with a cane, assemble at military parades, or make "joyful demonstrations." See also: CHATTEL.

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