Front Page Titles (by Subject) Colonial American Slave Law - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Colonial American Slave Law - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Colonial American Slave Law
“The Statutory Law of Slavery and Race in the Thirteen Mainland Colonies of British America.” William and Mary Quarterly 34 (1977): 258–280.
Government laws legitimatized powerful undercurrents of racial prejudice and institutionalized American slavery. During the American colonial period, other free communities enacted statutory laws that condemned blacks to lifetime servitude and thus protected the white owners from the threat of slave revolts.
So thoroughly did colonial lawmakers establish slavery that the newly formed states of the 1770s and 1780s wholly adopted their forebearers' servile legal code. Moreover, they agreed with United States Supreme Court Justice John McLean in treating this statutory legacy as firmly establishing American slavery.
To understand post-Revolution slavery we need to study the assumptions of its statutory basis in the colonial period. Colonial lawmakers labored to justify how human blacks lost those rights enjoyed by human whites. Moreover, legislators had to decide whether slaves were to be considered real or personal property, some mixture of the two, or a unique case. Ultimately slaves were defined as personal chattel, moveable property tied to a free person. This definition did not prevent some states, however, from allowing slaves to be sold with land as if they were real property.
The colonial statutes stipulated lifetime servitude for slaves, and thereby distinguished their status from indentured servants. They also stamped slavery with its racial definitions: negroes, mulattoes, and Indians could be slaves, but not whites. Finally, the colonial lawmakers determined that the children of slaves should follow their mother's status. This revealing innovation resolved the social dilemma resulting from sexual liaisons between the races; it also testifies to how strictly legislators sought to segregate the races.
Along with these pillars of slave law, colonial statutes minutely defined most relationships between the races. Slaves had civil existence only through their masters. Denied access to the usual channels of justice, slaves were relegated to special courts. During the colonial period, statutes forbade teaching slaves reading and other skills. The law disabled slaves from carrying weapons. Ultimately, even travel by slaves was restricted. Legislators devised elaborate policing systems to ferret out disruptors of this increasingly complex labyrinth of social controls.
By the time of the American Revolution, an intricate web of slave statutes had been woven. In an otherwise free community, it legalized a society of unequal status. This legal system also reinforced the bedrock prejudices underlying slavery. The only significant legal changes in slavery after 1776 came from state legislatures above the Mason-Dixon line. These legislatures slowly and cautiously abolished chattel slavery over the next 80 years. Below the Mason-Dixon, the laws sanctioning a slave-based society stood virtually unchanged until 1861.