Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Thomas D. Morris | Go to book overview

11
Masters and the Criminal Offenses of Their Slaves

Procuring counsel for his slave . . . is in return for the profits of the bondsman's labor and toil. Jim, (a slave), v. State ( Georgia, 1854)

Goodell claimed that there were rare cases "where the interests of the 'owner,' the wants of society, or the exigencies of the Government require an anomalous departure from the principle of slave chattlehood, by the temporary and partial recognition of their humanity. Such exceptions and modifications are never made for the benefit of the slave."1 Did Southern law treat slaves as autonomous moral beings separate from their masters? To suggest so overlooks the importance of the property claims of masters, of the master-slave relationship, and of the relationship masters had with the rest of society.

Douglas Hay suggested that one function of criminal law was the affirmation of authority and power.2 There is evidence that Southern whites were sometimes mindful of this. During late 1859 the Reverend Charles Colcock Jones of coastal Georgia turned his slave Lucy over to the local magistrates for trial. Lucy had concealed the death of her child, and Jones believed that she might have killed it. By December her trial was over, and she was sentenced to eight days in the county jail plus ninety lashes at intervals of two and three days. "It is my impression," Jones later wrote, "that if owners would more frequently refer criminal acts of their servants to the decisions of the courts, they would aid in establishing correct public sentiment among themselves in relation to different kinds of crimes committed by the Negroes, give better support to their own authority, and restrain the vices of the Negroes themselves." This was not necessarily the norm. About five years earlier, and just a few miles to the north on St. Helena Island in South Carolina, Thomas B. Chaplin had noted in his diary that "Helen's last child died today, regularly murdered. The mother deserves a good whipping, & I think she will get it yet." There is no indication that she did, and there is none that he turned her over to the public authorities. The next to the last entry in his diary reads: "Helen had a girl, Flora, Oct. 1860."3

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