Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Thomas D. Morris | Go to book overview

15
Property Crimes and the Law

The morality of free society could have no application to slave society.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS, My Bondage and My Freedom ( 1855)

E. P. Thompson's notion that criminal acts are often efforts to establish a "moral economy" by oppressed lower-class people has informed some efforts to find meaning in slave crimes against property. Alex Lichtenstein, for instance, saw them as attempts to "redefine and extend the bounds of paternalism" and as "incipient class-conflict over the forms the slave economy would take and the claims to its profits." Slaves, he believed, "used theft to reject, not accommodate to, their condition of slavery."1 The views of slaves and the recollections of ex-slaves are filled with discussions of thefts. They were often justified as a "taking" rather than stealing. As Frederick Law Olmsted put it, "the agrarian notion has become a fixed point of the negro system of ethics; that the result of labour belongs of right to the labourer, and on this ground, even the religious feel justified in using 'massa's' property for their own temporal benefit." Others felt unease about stealing. One ex-slave commented: "See old Marse and Missus give us such little rations led her slaves to stealin' . . . We knowed hit was de wrong thing to do but hunger will make you do a lot of things." There is little doubt that some felt personal degradation because of it, as the case of Frederick Douglass shows. But he ultimately rationalized thefts because the "morality of free society could have no application to slave society."2

Thefts of food from masters were not the only offenses against property committed by slaves, and petty stealing--as opposed to a crime like burglary--did not usually become a legal problem. Masters simply punished the slaves on the plantations for stealing chickens, which is why property crimes played a relatively small role in legal experience. This level of the struggle between masters and slaves was largely outside the public law. Law was involved only in that authority to punish was permitted to masters. As James Henry Hammond noted, "we try, decide, and execute the sentences, in thousands of cases, which in other countries would go into the courts."3

This was not the case with arson. William Faulkner caught the profound unease aroused in Southern whites by fire. The image of the burning house in Light inAugust

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