Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Thomas D. Morris | Go to book overview
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Southern Law and the Homicides of Slaves

The evil is not that laws are wanting, but that they
cannot be enforced.
GEORGE STROUD, Sketch of the Laws ( 1827)

"Killing a slave," wrote Frederick Douglass, "or any colored person, in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community."1 Goodell claimed that he was unable "to ascertain a single instance in which a slave owner has been convicted or even prosecuted for the murder of his own slave."2 Evidence from slaveowners supports these impressions. On February 19, 1849, for example, Thomas B. Chaplin of coastal South Carolina recorded a ghastly case. He had sat that day on an inquest jury looking into the death of Roger. Roger, a "complete cripple," because of "impertinence" had been "placed in an open outhouse, the wind blowing through a hundred cracks, his clothes wet to the waist, without a single blanket & in freezing weather, with his back against a partition, shackles on his wrists, & chained to a bolt in the floor and a chain around his neck, the chain passing through the partition behind him, & fastened on the other side." The next morning he was found "dead, choked, strangled, frozen to death, murdered. The verdict of the jury, was that Roger came to his death by choking by a chain put around his neck by his master--having slipped from the position in which he was placed." Chaplin was dutifully outraged, but no criminal action was brought.3

One of the most important issues in the lives of slaves and masters alike was the degree of power of governance (which meant the use of force) society left in the hands of slaveowners. A related, but different concern in a slave society resting on race was that of the authority society granted third parties to use violence against a slave. The starkest questions arose when the slave died as a result of the force used. Slaveowners, of course, possessed the right, even the duty, to punish and control their slaves on their plantations. This was the system Eugene Genovese called the "complementary system of justice" to that of the public forum. But there were


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