Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective

By Don E. Fehrenbacher | Go to book overview

1
Slavery and Race
in the
American Constitutional System

The first African Negroes in the British North American colonies were brought ashore at Jamestown in 1619. During that same year, Virginians organized the first representative assembly on the continent, and thus, in a sense, slavery and self-government arrived simultaneously. The irony seems plain enough now, but for more than a century it did not scratch the surface of colonial consciousness. By the eve of the American Revolution, slavery was not only legally established in all thirteen colonies but so firmly implanted in the southern colonies that blacks constituted about 40 per cent of the population.

The theoretical foundations and essential nature of the institution were much the same from Maine to Georgia. Yet the daily life of a New England house servant bore little resemblance to the life of a field hand on a South Carolina rice plantation. There were significant variations even in the legal structure of slavery from colony to colony, and the institution in practice took many forms, reflecting many varieties of social context and individual personality. In all the colonies, to be sure, African slavery was lifelong and hereditary. At law, a slave was reduced in considerable degree from a person to a thing, having no legitimate will of its own and belonging bodily to its owner. As property, a slave could be bought and sold. As animate property, he could be compelled to work, and his offspring belonged abso

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