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By the 1600s, Africans were being transported to America as slaves, and eventually the African slave trade became a major part of the economy in North America. The governing bodies in North American jurisdictions developed laws that were referred to as slave codes. These laws were used to indicate the status of the slaves in each jurisdiction, the rights of their masters, and acceptable treatment of those bound in slavery. In most cases, the codes made slaves property rather than human beings. This meant their masters owned them, much in the same way they might own a horse, a home, or a piece of furniture.
Slaves codes typically left the slaves with few, if any, legal rights. In most cases, a slave had no legal right to own property. He could not sign or enter into a contract, and his testimony, if given in a case that involved Caucasians, was usually inadmissible in a court of law. These laws even made it illegal for a slave to defend himself against bodily harm. If a Caucasian person attacked a slave, the slave could not hit him back, even to save his own life. If he did so, he might be punished with whipping, prison time, or even with death.
Often, a jurisdiction's slave codes governed the very things people take for granted today, such as the right to learn to read or write. It was typically illegal for slaves to learn to read or write, and they could not hold meetings or assemblies. There was often an exception to that rule, however. They might be allowed to assemble if a Caucasian was present. Slave codes typically even governed where a slave was allowed to go; in most cases, it was illegal for a slave to leave his master's property without his master's permission.
There were also codes that made slave marriages illegal. Since slaves were not allowed to enter into legal contracts, marriage was prohibited because it is a type of contract. Some slaves married in secret. They did so at their own peril, however, as the punishment for this activity could be very harsh.
Interestingly, slave codes often included laws for freed slaves. For example, the codes in some places required freed slaves to leave the jurisdiction in which they had been enslaved. Additionally, slave codes often applied to people who were not of African descent but were still bound in slavery. For example, Indians and people of other races were sometimes enslaved as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What were the slave codes?
Slave codes were laws established in the colonial and antebellum South to regulate the lives of enslaved African Americans. These codes restricted their movement, behavior, and freedoms, enforcing a system that denied them basic human rights. For instance, they were prohibited from learning to read or write, could not marry legally, and had no legal recourse against abuse by their owners.
When were the first slave codes enacted, and why?
The first formal slave codes in what would become the United States were enacted in Virginia in 1705. These laws were created to provide a legal framework for the institution of slavery, which was becoming increasingly integral to the colonial economy, particularly in the production of tobacco and other cash crops. The codes were designed to control the enslaved population and prevent rebellion or escape.
How did slave codes vary between different states or colonies?
Slave codes varied significantly between states and colonies, reflecting the economic and social conditions of each area. For example, in agricultural regions where enslaved people outnumbered whites, such as South Carolina, codes were often more severe to deter rebellion. In contrast, in urban areas or places with fewer slaves, the codes might be less stringent. Despite these differences, the codes uniformly aimed to dehumanize enslaved individuals and legitimize their treatment as property.
What were some common punishments under slave codes for enslaved people who broke the rules?
Enslaved individuals who broke the rules set by slave codes faced harsh punishments. These could include whippings, branding, mutilation, or even death. For less severe infractions, enslaved people might be put in stocks or sold away from their families. The severity of punishment was often at the discretion of the slave owner or local authorities, and due process was virtually nonexistent for the enslaved.
Did slave codes have any impact on the abolition movement?
Slave codes played a significant role in galvanizing the abolition movement by highlighting the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. Abolitionists used the existence of these codes to argue against the moral and ethical justification of slavery. The codes provided concrete examples of the legal devaluation of Black lives, which abolitionists cited in their campaigns to end slavery and promote equal rights.
For further detailed historical context and analysis on slave codes, readers can refer to credible sources such as the National Humanities Center (http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/) or access primary documents from the era through the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/).