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Slaves codes were state laws established to regulate the relationship
between slave and owner as well as to legitimize the institution of slavery. They were
used to determine the status of slaves and the rights of their owners. In
practice, these codes placed harsh restrictions on slaves' already limited freedoms
and gave slave owners absolute power over their slaves.
Many provisions were
designed to control slave populations and preempt rebellion. For example,
slaves were prohibited from reading and writing, and owners were mandated to regularly
search slave residences for suspicious activity. Some codes prohibited slaves
from possessing weapons, leaving their owner's plantations without permission,
and lifting a hand against a white person, even in self-defense. Occasionally slave codes provided slaves with legal
protection in the event of a legal dispute, but only at the discretion of the
was common for slaves to be prohibited from carrying firearms or learning to
read, but there were often important variations in slave codes across states. For
example, in Alabama, slaves were not allowed to leave the owner's premises
without written consent, nor were they allowed 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, an emancipated slave was
prohibited from returning to the state in which he or she had been enslaved.
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.
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
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; to be branded with the letter "R" on the right cheek for
the second offense; to lose one ear if absent for 30 days for the third offense;
and to be 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
No slave was allowed to work for pay; plant corn, peas, or rice; keep
hogs, cattle, or horses; own or operate a boat; or buy, sell, or wear clothes
finer than "Negro cloth.”
South Carolina's slave code was revised in 1739 by means of the Negro Act, which included 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 the 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 pounds and a prison sentence
of up to one year.
A fine of 100 pounds 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.
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's regulations were 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 was often 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., and slavery in the District of Columbia ended in 1862 with
nearly 3,000 slaveholders being offered a compensation. The district’s official
printed slave code was issued only a month beforehand.