SC leaders led push to regulate slaves’ lives

Don Boudreaux of Café Hayek takes time to highlight an interesting piece from David Freeman Hawke’s 1988 book Everyday Life in Early America; relating, in this instance, to 17th century life in the Palmetto State:

“Peter H. Wood found little discrimination in early South Carolina. ‘Common hardships and the continuing shortage of hands,’ he writes [in 1974], ‘put the different races, as well as separate sexes, upon a more equal footing than they would see in subsequent generations.’ Many scholars now conclude that discrimination set in only during the last quarter of the century when a ‘series of court decisions and statutes began closing the gates of freedom along racial lines,’ changes that finally became codified in Virginia’s slave code of 1705.”

Admittedly not having read the book, a question is raised by the above paragraph:

South Carolina was officially settled by the English in 1670, so are we simply talking about a five-year period before “discrimination set in (1670-1675)?”

According to a piece titled South Carolina Slave Laws: Summary and Record, “Black slavery was legally recognized by the Carolina Grand Council in 1669, and a number of specific statutes were passed beginning in 1686 aimed at controlling the emerging slave population. Among other matters, the code established a slave’s status as freehold property, which was a higher level of property than chattel.”

Freehold property, in theory, could not be moved or sold from the estate, not unlike medieval serfs who were tied to specific farms or feudal estates.

“The slaveholder had use of an enslaved person’s services, but could not claim absolute ownership,” the article stated.

Within a decade, however, the status of enslaved Africans in South Carolina had been degraded to chattel property in law and in practice. “Enslaved blacks, mulattoes and American Indians could be bought and sold, and their children were enslaved for life.”

That would certainly seem to back up Wood’s assertion. Of course, one could argue, isn’t slavery in and of itself discrimination that closes the gates of freedom?

Even the freeing of slaves was an act that eventually became regulated by the state, beginning in 1712, when the colonial legislature decreed that slaveholders or the colonial governor or provincial council could manumit enslaved persons for good cause.

Later, legislation was passed that stated that manumitted blacks had to leave the colony. If the freed person failed to leave South Carolina within six months, he or she would be re-enslaved and sold at public auction.

By 1800, manumission laws had become even more stringent.

“In response to some slaveholders who freed troublesome, old, or sickly blacks who then became burdens on the community, the legislature required the approval of a commission for any future manumissions,” according to the piece on South Carolina Slave Laws. “By 1820, enslaved African Americans could only be freed by an act of the legislature. Other statutes, such as one passed in 1822, prohibited free blacks from entering the state.”

As time went on and the number of slaves continued to increase in South Carolina, meaning the ratios of blacks to whites grew increasingly distant, more laws were passed.

In 1740, a new slave code was enacted. Commonly known as the “Negro Act,” the code was passed in response to the Stono slave rebellion of 1739 and remained largely unchanged altered until emancipation at the end of the War Between the States 125 years later.

“The new code further stripped enslaved blacks of any kind of protection under the law. Punishment for the murder of an enslaved person by a white, for example, was reduced to a mere misdemeanor punishable by a fine.”

Slaves could be executed for plotting insurrection or conspiring to run away, burning a barrel of tar or a “stack of rice,” or teaching another slave “the knowledge of any poisonous root, plant, [or] herb.”

Much of the Negro Act was devoted to controlling minute aspects of a slave’s life. For example, slaves were not allowed to dress in a way “above the condition of slaves.”

In addition, their clothes could only be made from a list of approved coarse fabrics. Blacks were prohibited from learning how to read and write, and were not permitted to assemble with one another. Blacks in violation of these provisions were subject to flogging.

Of course, given that most of the men who sat in the state’s General Assembly during the South Carolina’s antebellum era were slaveholders, perhaps it’s not surprising that they were willing to pass such draconian laws regarding the lives of blacks.

These individuals, after all, were the ones who had the most to lose were slaves ever to rise up and successfully revolt against the individuals who kept them in shackles.


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