To help regulate the relationship between slave and owner - as well as legally support the system of keeping slaves as property - slave codes were established. Slave codes were laws in each state defining the status of slaves and the rights of their masters. They also demonstrated legal sanctions over the black population. These codes generally placed harsh restrictions on slaves’ freedom and gave slave-owners absolute power over the African slaves Figure 1.
Even though slave codes had many common features, each state had specific codes or variations that suited the laws in that region. In Alabama, slaves were not allowed to leave the owner's premises without written consent, nor were slaves allowed to trade goods among themselves. In Virginia, slaves were not permitted to drink in public within one mile of his master or during public gatherings. In Ohio, an emancipated slave was prohibited from returning to the state in which he or she had been enslaved.
While each state had its own slave code, many concepts were shared throughout the slave states. For example, teaching a slave to read or write was illegal, although it often took place as children taught each other. Slaves were not permitted to carry firearms in any of the slave states.
Sample Slave Codes
The slave codes of the tobacco colonies (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia) were modeled on the Virginia code established in 1667. The 1682 Virginia code prohibited slaves from possessing weapons, leaving their owner's plantations without permission and lifting a hand against a white person, even in self defense. In addition, a runaway slave refusing to surrender could be killed without penalty.
South Carolina established its slave code in 1712, with the following provisions:
- Slaves were forbidden to leave the owner's property unless they obtained permission or were accompanied by a white person.
- Any slave attempting to run away and leave the colony received the death penalty.
- Any slave who evaded capture for 20 days or more was to be publicly whipped for the first offense; branded with the letter R on the right cheek for the second offense; lose one ear if absent for 30 days for the third offense; and castrated for the fourth offense.
- Owners refusing to abide by the slave code were fined and forfeited ownership of their slaves.
- Slave homes were searched every two weeks for weapons or stolen goods. Punishment for violations included loss of ears, branding, nose-slitting and death.
- No slave was allowed to work for pay, or to plant corn, peas or rice; or to keep hogs, cattle, or horses; or to own or operate a boat; to buy or sell or wear clothes finer than "Negro cloth."
Virginia's slave code was revised in 1739 with the following amendments:
- No slave could be taught to write, work on Sunday or work more than 15 hours per day in summer, and 14 hours in winter.
- Willful killing of a slave exacted a fine of 700 pounds, and "passion" killing 350 pounds.
- The fine for concealing runaway slaves was $1,000 and a prison sentence of up to one year.
- A fine of $100 and six months in prison were imposed for employing any black or slave as a clerk, for selling or giving alcoholic beverages to slaves, and for teaching a slave to read and write.
- Freeing a slave was forbidden, except by deed, and after 1820 only by permission of the legislature.
Harsh regulations for slaves in the District of Columbia, most of whom were servants for the government elite, were in effect until the 1850s. Compared to some southern codes, the District of Columbia was relatively moderate. Slaves were allowed to hire their services, 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 when drafting contracts or briefs. Following the Compromise of 1850, the sale of slaves was outlawed within Washington D.C. Slavery in the District of Columbia ended in 1862 and nearly 3,000 slaveholders were offered a compensation. The official printed slave code was issued only a month before slavery ended there.
Slave codes in the Northern colonies were less harsh than slave codes in the Southern colonies, but contained many similar provisions. These included forbidding slaves from leaving the owner's land, forbidding whites from selling alcohol to slaves, and specifying punishment for attempting to escape.