Slave codes

Slave codes were a set of laws that allowed a slave's master to retrieve their slave from free states without their permission.

Definition of slave

Virginia, 1639
"Act XI. All persons except the African slaves are to be provided with arms and ammunitions or be fined at the pleasure of the governor and the council."[1]
Virginia, 1662
"Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishmen upon a Negro shall be slave or Free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother."
Maryland, 1664
"That whatsoever free-born [English] woman shall intermarry with any slave... shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free-born women, so married shall be slaves as their fathers were."
Virginia, 1667
"Act III. Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children that are slaves by birth... should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament."
Virginia, 1682
"Act I. It is enacted that all servants... which shall be imported into this country either by sea or by land, whether Negroes, Moors, mulattoes or Indians who and whose parentage and native countries are not Christian at the time of their first purchase by some Christian... and all Indians, which shall be sold by our neighboring Indians, or any other trafficking with us for slaves, are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents and purposes any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding."
Virginia, 1705
"All servants imported and brought into the Country... who were not Christians in their native Country... shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion... shall be held to be real estate."[2]
South Carolina, 1712
"Be it therefore enacted, by his Excellency, William, Lord Craven, Palatine.... and the rest of the members of the General Assembly, now met at Charles Town, for the South-west part of this Province, and by the authority of the same, That all negros, mulattoes, mestizo's or Indians, which at any time heretofore have been sold, or now are held or taken to be, or hereafter shall be bought and sold for slaves, are hereby declared slaves; and they, and their children, are hereby made and declared slaves...."

Violence against slaves

Reading by slaves illegal

Some codes made teaching to mulattos, Indians and indentured slaves illegal.[3]


Deep South

South Carolina established its slave code in 1712, based on the 1688 English slave code employed in Barbados. The South Carolina slave code served as the model for other colonies in North America. In 1770, Georgia adopted the South Carolina slave code, and Florida adopted the Georgia code.[4] The 1712 South Carolina slave code included provisions such as:[4]

The South Carolina slave code was revised in 1739 with the following amendments:[4]

Some elements of the codes were rarely or laxly enforced as they imposed costs or limitations upon (politically powerful) slaveowners. For instance, well after 1712, slaves commonly worked for hire in Charleston.[5]

Tobacco states

The slave codes of the tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia) were modeled on the Virginia code, which was initially established in 1667.[4] The 1682 Virginia code included the following provisions:[6]

District of Columbia slave codes

Slaves were a common sight in the nation's capital. Harsh regulation of the urban slaves, most of whom were servants for the government elite, was in effect until the 1850s. Compared to some southern codes, the District of Columbia was relatively moderate. Slaves were allowed to hire their services and live apart from their masters, and free blacks were even allowed to live in the city and operate schools. The code could be used by attorneys and clerks who referred to it to draft contracts or briefs. By 1860, there were over 11,000 free blacks and over 3,000 slaves. Following the Compromise of 1850, the sale of slaves was outlawed. Slavery ended in 1862 and nearly 3,000 slaves were offered a compensation. The official printed slave code was issued only a month before slavery ended there.

Northern colonies

Slave codes in the northern colonies, before slavery was abolished, were less harsh than slave codes in the southern colonies but contained many similar provisions, such as forbidding slaves from leaving the owner's land, forbidding whites from selling alcohol to slaves, and specifying punishment for attempting to escape.[7]

Proper treatment of slaves

Southern slave codes made willful killing of a slave illegal in most cases.[8] For example, in 1791, the North Carolina legislature made the willful killing of a slave murder unless it was done who was resisting or under moderate correction.[8] Historian Lawrence M. Friedman wrote: "Ten Southern codes made it a crime to mistreat a slave.... Under the Louisiana Civil Code of 1825 (art. 192), if a master was "convicted of cruel treatment," the judge could order the sale of the mistreated slave, presumably to a better master."[9]


In Utah, the Act in Relation to Service provided several protections for slaves. They were freed if the slave owner was found guilty of cruelty or abuse, or neglect to feed, clothe, or shelter the slave, or if there were any sexual intercourse between the master and the slave.[10] The definition of cruelty was vague and hard to enforce, and in practice, slaves received similar treatment to those in the South.[11]

Due process rights for slaves

In Florida, a slave charged with a capital offense was entitled to legal counsel to represent him on the theory that the master should not be deprived of his property by hanging unless the slave got a fair trial.

See also


  1. "Laws on Slavery". Virtual Jamestown.
  2. Slave Codes of 1705
  3. 1 2 3 4 Christian, pp. 27-28
  4. Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Harvard University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-674-81092-9
  5. Christian, pp. 19
  6. Christian, p 30
  7. 1 2 Morris, Thomas D. (1999). Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860. University of North Carolina Press. p. 172. ISBN 0807864307.
  8. Lawrence M. Friedman (2005). A History of American Law: Third Edition. Simon and Schuster. p.163 ISBN 0743282582
  9. Utah Slave Codes 1852
  10. "Brief History Alex Bankhead and Marinda Redd Bankhead (mention of Dr Pinney of Salem)". The Broad Ax. March 25, 1899.


Further reading

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