Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Thomas D. Morris | Go to book overview

16
Police Regulations
An Act for the Better Ordering of Slaves South Carolina, Statutes at Large ( 1690)

A central objective of the slave codes was the control of labor to work the plantations, farms, mines, factories, and railroads of the South. The codes supplemented (and limited) the controls of slaveowners. To that end lawmakers adopted patrol laws and laws that restricted or denied to slaves all of the rights Blackstone considered the basic rights of people secured by English law--the "right of personal security, the right of personal liberty; and the right of private property." The first of these was discussed in Chapter 8. Blackstone defined the right of personal liberty as "removing one's person to whatsoever place one's own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law." This right was denied to slaves, for, as Cobb noted, "the right of personal liberty in the slave is utterly inconsistent with the idea of slavery, and whenever the slave acquires this right, his condition is ipso facto changed."1 This right was restrained by pass laws, laws requiring the presence of whites on plantations or at gatherings of slaves, laws on slaves who were allowed to go at large as though they were free or hiring themselves out, laws on unlawful assemblies, and laws on slave runaways.

The last of the "absolute" rights of man was the ownership of property.2 Abolitionists and proslavery writers agreed that slaves had no right to property. Stroud observed that "whatever property they may acquire belongs, in point of law, to their masters." He had a crucial qualification. This "harsh doctrine" could be affirmed only for "negro slavery." In the ancient world slaves "were permitted to acquire and enjoy property of considerable value, as their own." The same was true in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. It was even true, to some extent, in the British West Indies--at least as a practical matter. Cobb agreed as to the law in the South, but he disagreed as to the practice: "though our law allows of no peculium to the slave, yet, as a matter of fact, such peculium is permitted, ex gratia, by the master." The right to possess or own property was covered by laws on trading with slaves and laws directly concerning the ownership of property. All of these features of the slave codes are obvious enough, and all have been cited by scholars. A fine summary is that of Stampp.3 However, even this summary conceals tensions,

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