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African Americans in the British New World

6f. "Slave Codes"

Nat Turner
The Granger Collection, New York
Nat Turner was inspired by visions of the Spirit to lead a slave uprising in Virginia on August 22, 1831.

Slaves did not accept their fate without protest. Many instances of rebellion were known to Americans, even in colonial times. These rebellions were not confined to the South. In fact, one of the earliest examples of a slave uprising was in 1712 in Manhattan. As African Americans in the colonies grew greater and greater in number, there was a justifiable paranoia on the part of the white settlers that a violent rebellion could occur in one's own neighborhood. It was this fear of rebellion that led each colony to pass a series of laws restricting slaves' behaviors. The laws were known as slave codes.

Although each colony had differing ideas about the rights of slaves, there were some common threads in slave codes across areas where slavery was common. Legally considered property, slaves were not allowed to own property of their own. They were not allowed to assemble without the presence of a white person. Slaves that lived off the plantation were subject to special curfews.

In the courts, a slave accused of any crime against a white person was doomed. No testimony could be made by a slave against a white person. Therefore, the slave's side of the story could never be told in a court of law. Of course, slaves were conspicuously absent from juries as well.

Slave codes had ruinous effects on African American society. It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write. Religious motives sometimes prevailed, however, as many devout white Christians educated slaves to enable the reading of the Bible. These same Christians did not recognize marriage between slaves in their laws. This made it easier to justify the breakup of families by selling one if its members to another owner.

As time passed and the numbers of African Americans in the New World increased, so did the fears of their white captors. With each new rebellion, the slave codes became ever more strict, further abridging the already limited rights and privileges this oppressed people might hope to enjoy.

On the Web
Library of Congress: Slave Codes
Slavery in the United States was governed by an extensive body of law developed from the 1660s to the 1860s. Every slave state had its own slave code and body of court decisions. A detailed site exploring slave codes from the Library of Congress.
Race, Religion, and the "Trail of Tears"
When the first Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619, Europeans were already treating native Americans as slaves. Intermarriage between Africans and native Americans became so common, that a 1740 South Carolina slave code specifically addressed the status of mixed race children.
Slavery In Early America's Colonies
This outstanding article traces the legal foundations for the slave codes. Slavery came to be justified through a complicated belief system, and the legal justification was only a small part of that belief system. However, the law was what gave structure to the institution. English common law was flexible and fluid, but the other great tradition of Roman was extremely rigid. Jurists had to look to both to decide the lawsuits that began flooding the American courts. Excerpts from court documents and laws from Maryland and Virginia show how the structure of slavery grew.
Virginia's Slave Codes
Virginia's slave code of 1705 was designed to settle the questions about the status of non-Christian servants... they were all slaves. The law served as a model for codes in other colonies. This webpage from PBS provides a brief overview and links to related topics.
If any slave resist his master ... correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction ... the master shall be free of all punishment ... as if such accident never happened. Read more about the 1705 slave code which served as a model for future laws.
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African slave men outnumbered women 3 to 1, and native American men had been killed off by disease and in war. Intermarriage allowed each group to benefit from the surplus of the opposite sex. But what of the children of those marriages — were they slave or free?
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The American practice of using the term "boy" for male slaves of any age dates back to Roman times, more than a thousand years earlier. The Romans used the Latin work "puer" in their legal documents. Are there other vestiges of the time of chariots that touch us today?
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