Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Thomas D. Morris | Go to book overview
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Slaves' Violence against Third Parties

Legal rules were to be adapted to the "actual conditions of human beings in our society."

State v. Jarrott, (a slave) ( North Carolina, 1840)

Slaves had a duty of obedience not only to their owners, but also to all whites (at least under some circumstances). The right of whites, including nonslaveowners, to use force against slaves and the limits on that right have been considered. The reverse side of that relationship became a legal issue when slaves resisted. Slave resistance to third parties ranged from "insolence" to assaults, to homicides. Each crime presented different legal problems. What was illegal "insolence," or was there such an offense? Assaults increasingly became a tough legal problem as states adopted laws on "assaults with intent to kill": the problem then became one of "intention." Finally, in homicides the question that arose was whether or not it was possible for a slave to be guilty of the crime of manslaughter when the victim was white--and that turned on the issue of "provocation," which brought to the fore the social relationship of slaves to all whites.

The problem, to a large degree, was one of drawing lines, and that lent itself to legislation. Generally, policy choices on punishments overshadowed discussions of legal concepts like "provocation" when the resistance of the slaves was violent because the choice was to make all violent assaults on whites by slaves capital offenses.

One of the earliest statutory decisions was in the 1740 South Carolina law: it was a capital offense in the case of any slave "who shall be guilty of homicide of any sort, upon any white person." Exceptions were allowed for accidents or homicides in defense of one's owner. In Mississippi, the "manslaughter of any free person" by a slave became a capital offense. In 1852 Alabama made the voluntary manslaughter of a white person by a slave a capital offense. It also made it capital for a slave to commit involuntary manslaughter on a white in the commission of "any unlawful act." In 1859 Texas law provided that an assault and battery by a white on a slave that did not inflict great injury would not be a "sufficient provocation" to mitigate the offense from murder to manslaughter.1


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