Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. (Reviews)

By de Jong, Greta | Journal of Social History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. (Reviews)


de Jong, Greta, Journal of Social History


Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. By Sally E. Hadden (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Slave Patrols is a valuable resource for scholars seeking to learn more about some neglected aspects of southern (and American) history. Drawing on a variety of sources including legislation, court cases, letters, diaries, and slave narratives, Sally Hadden provides a finely detailed account of the origins, functions, impact, and legacy of slave patrols, with the aim of enhancing our understanding of the influence that racism had on the development of law enforcement in the United States and its emphasis on the monitoring and controlling of black behavior by white Americans.

Hadden begins by outlining colonial attempts to regulate slavery through laws that set restrictions on enslaved people's actions and required all settlers to assist in enforcing the slave codes. Under these systems people who encountered slaves traveling without passes were expected to return them to their owners, and in South Carolina landowners were obliged to punish unknown slaves who wandered onto their plantations. The ineffectiveness of this approach and fears raised by slave rebellions led eventually to the creation of formal slave patrols composed of white men appointed specifically for the task. South Carolina and Virginia drew slave patrollers from militia lists, while North Carolina relied on county courts to appoint local committees responsible for establishing patrols in their communities. Hadden notes that, contrary to the popular belief among contemporaries and historians that slave patrols were comprised mostly of poor white men, patrollers were drawn from all social classes. This finding mirr ors the conclusions of recent studies of twentieth-century lynch mobs, demonstrating that elite white southerners shared responsibility for violence against African Americans throughout the region's history.

Formed primarily to offset the threat of insurrection, slave patrollers' duties included searching slave dwellings to guard against the acquisition of weapons, breaking up slave gatherings, and patrolling roads to capture potential runaways, as well as being on the lookout for suspicious activity. Frequent escapes, the development of maroon colonies, and three major slave revolts in Virginia and South Carolina in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggest that patrols were not always as vigilant as their communities would have liked them to be. Many white southerners complained of rowdy, drunken patrols that were not doing their jobs, and called for reform. Yet even in the wake of serious crises like the Stono rebellion of 1739, legislatures were unable to significantly improve the system. Hadden attributes this failure to obstacles presented by the South's tradition of individualism and conceptions of honor that viewed any kind of government intervention with suspicion. …

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