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What Were Slave Codes?

Mary Anthony Mar 15, 2020
In the 17th century U.S., plantation owners dreaded the increasing number of slaves under their supervision, and they could sense a violent rebellion waiting to occur. Hence to curb the slaves from uniting against them, they established laws known as the 'Slave Codes'.
The Liberator was a weekly anti-slavery newspaper published by social reformer and journalist William Lloyd Garrison for 35 years, from Jan 1, 1831 to Jan 1, 1866. It ceased printing after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery from the U.S.
A slave is the one who is in the power of the master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labor. He can do nothing possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master.
Slave codes unleashed a chain of barbarism in the name of laws and displayed sheer despotism of the society and the government at large. The slaves were rigidly bound to their masters for their entire lifetime with no personal economic, social, or legal rights.
They were mostly referred to as 'personal estate,' making them a commodity and property of their masters to be treated like cattle. They could be sold, pawned as goods, tortured, punished, sexually exploited, and even put to death by their captors.

Brief Historic Background

➔ The African Diaspora which caused an estimated 12 to 13 million Africans to be taken captive from their native lands, and shipped off to cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice plantation owners resulted in the largest slavery trade of humankind from 1400s to 1800s.
➔ Most of the slave trade was dominated and executed by the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch from 1500 to 1700. After 1730, English and North American traders slowly shifted their focus into this business.
➔ The Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 against the plantation elite by the disobedient, lower-class whites had convinced the plantation owners in the coastal regions to replace them with bound laborers who would be cheaper and easy to discipline.
Thus Virginia passed laws setting slaves as chattel property whose status would be lifelong and hereditary, thus promoting an environment conducive for slavery in the state's plantations.
➔ As the foundation of slavery grew and prospered, slaveholders simply followed the already existing laws established prior to 1776 for handling and manipulation of slaves.
Eventually, all the slave-holding states adopted slave codes. They defined slaves as property with no human rights distinguished through law. These laws regularized all the aspects of slave life and were severe than the previously implemented codes.
➔ The magnitude of black slaves in colonial America created suspicion and fear of a rebellion. Moreover, a considerable number of slaves fled from captivity, hence stricter laws were introduced. Virginia was the first of the 13 colonies to adopt the slave codes which were based on the Caribbean slave codes' model.
Other colonies rapidly adopted these Virginian laws. Slave codes varied more or less from colony to colony, but the common factor was that bondage was legalized for lifelong and ensured that it was hereditary.

Implications of Slave Codes

➔ Slave codes regulated slave relations with whites based on laws. It also provided legal support to the act of owning slaves in the white properties. These laws also indicated the position, rights, and treatments of the slaves in each jurisdiction.
The white masters totally controlled their lives even subjecting them to corporal punishments such as whipping, branding, maiming, and torture. Although the white masters could not lawfully execute their slaves, some did and were never tried in the court of law.
➔ Even the slightest report of a rebellion or resistance could land the captives towards a death sentence. Free blacks who aided in the escape of slaves were heavily fined and beaten. They were banned from owning weapons or raising a hand against their employees, even in self-defense.
In case a slave was arrested for possession of a gun or any other weapon, he received 39 lashes with a whip. In some colonies, even the free blacks were prohibited from carrying a gun. Slave homes were raided every two weeks for surprise checks of illegal weapons. If found guilty, they would suffer from loss of ears, branding, nose-slitting and death.
➔ If the slaves were caught committing crime, the punishment would be death. They were not able to testify or defend themselves in the court. Captives attempting to run away or leave the colonies were put to death. In case the captive fudged capture for 20 days or more he would be publicly whipped for the first offense.
For a second attempt, he would be branded with the letter R on the right cheek. He would lose one ear if captured after an absence of 30 days, and castrated for the fourth attempt. The fine implemented for hiding runaway slaves was $1,000 and one year prison sentence. Slaves could only travel through a written permission obtained from their masters.
➔ These codes extended over religious and marital matters as well. Heathen captives who converted to Christianity were still considered as captives, they were prohibited from getting married within the plantations which led to the prevalence of secret marriage ceremonies.
In Virginia, for example, only a free woman could have free progeny, but if a free white woman married an enslaved Black man, she would automatically become the property of her husband's master and her children would be considered as slaves.
➔ They could not own properties, they were forbidden from reading and writing, except in some cases they could just read the Bible. If a person was caught teaching the slaves to read and write, the punishment would be a fine of not less than $500 and six months in jail.
They were made to work without pay except on Sundays, and labor for more than 15 hours per day in summer, and 14 hours in winter. The only available clothing was 'Negro' cloth - a cloth made out of coarse material which was supplied to them once a year.
➔ They were sexually exploited. For e.g. they would be offered as prizes during raffles and subjected as wagers in gambling. They were offered up as security for loans, and even distributed as gifts from one owner to another just so that they remain degraded.
➔ It was considered illegal to free a slave except by a deed or through the permission of the legislature. Some even bizarre laws came into existence. For e.g. in Alabama, slaves were prohibited to trade goods among themselves.
In Virginia, slaves were not permitted to drink in public within one mile of their master or during public gatherings. In Ohio, a liberated slave was prohibited from returning to the state in which he or she had been enslaved.
Slave codes ceased with the start of the Civil War, but were rapidly substituted by other prejudiced laws known as 'black codes' during the period of Reconstruction (1865-77). These black codes were an effort to control the newly freed African-Americans from taking up public offices, executing judicial duty, owning guns, and exercising their voting rights.
The U.S. Congress actively opposed these codes by ordaining legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The slave codes fundamentally persisted through the Jim Crow laws, until they were successfully disputed during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.