Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860

By Miller, F Thornton | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860


Miller, F Thornton, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860. By THOMAS D. MORRIS. Studies in Legal History. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. x, 575 pp. $49.95.

THOMAS D. MORRIS has written a comprehensive account of the development of the law of slavery in America from the colonial period to the Civil War. He looks beyond the antebellum abolitionists and proslavery interpretations of the law of slavery and its sources. Nor does he only describe a "slave code" merely by looking at those statutes that expressly pertained to slavery. He studies law as it was practiced in the courts. Most laws regarding slaves were aspects of property law. Cases dealt with such matters as inheritance disputes or the collection of debt. The origin of this kind of law, except in Louisiana, was the common law. Morris shows that the law of slavery changed through time and differed in the various colonies, then states. He also deals with the potential conflict between the law of slavery and other property law that was changing with a society and economy moving toward capitalism and wage labor.

Morris shows several ways in which the law of slavery changed. For example, in the colonial period, it was common for planters and justices of the peace to punish slaves for wrongdoing without going to trial. By the nineteenth century, many states moved against slaves as they would whites accused of crimes. The law would recognize the humanity of the slaves in order to hold them responsible for committing crimes against whites. Slaves were granted such common law due process rights as trial by jury and the right to an attorney (often paid by the planter).

Morris also describes numerous ways the law of slavery differed between colonies or states. For example, in the Atlantic Lower South and Louisiana, slaves could hold movable or personal property separate from their master (the peculium in the continental code in Louisiana) and could legally take goods to market. This was not the case in much of the Upper South and the Old Southwest. …

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