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What are Slave Codes?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 17, 2024
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By the 1600s, Africans were being transported to America as slaves, and eventually the African slave trade became a major part of the economy in North America. The governing bodies in North American jurisdictions developed laws that were referred to as slave codes. These laws were used to indicate the status of the slaves in each jurisdiction, the rights of their masters, and acceptable treatment of those bound in slavery. In most cases, the codes made slaves property rather than human beings. This meant their masters owned them, much in the same way they might own a horse, a home, or a piece of furniture.

Slaves codes typically left the slaves with few, if any, legal rights. In most cases, a slave had no legal right to own property. He could not sign or enter into a contract, and his testimony, if given in a case that involved Caucasians, was usually inadmissible in a court of law. These laws even made it illegal for a slave to defend himself against bodily harm. If a Caucasian person attacked a slave, the slave could not hit him back, even to save his own life. If he did so, he might be punished with whipping, prison time, or even with death.

Often, a jurisdiction's slave codes governed the very things people take for granted today, such as the right to learn to read or write. It was typically illegal for slaves to learn to read or write, and they could not hold meetings or assemblies. There was often an exception to that rule, however. They might be allowed to assemble if a Caucasian was present. Slave codes typically even governed where a slave was allowed to go; in most cases, it was illegal for a slave to leave his master's property without his master's permission.

There were also codes that made slave marriages illegal. Since slaves were not allowed to enter into legal contracts, marriage was prohibited because it is a type of contract. Some slaves married in secret. They did so at their own peril, however, as the punishment for this activity could be very harsh.

Interestingly, slave codes often included laws for freed slaves. For example, the codes in some places required freed slaves to leave the jurisdiction in which they had been enslaved. Additionally, slave codes often applied to people who were not of African descent but were still bound in slavery. For example, Indians and people of other races were sometimes enslaved as well.

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Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a America Explained writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon980574 — On Dec 05, 2014

This was way more than greed or hatred. This was people who were soulless, vicious animals who should have died off in the black plague in Europe. It was mutant insanity. The whole world will turn against you as prophesies continue to be fulfilled.

By anon974756 — On Oct 20, 2014

It makes you appreciate what you have. African Americans were targeted because the English couldn't stand out in the sun and work because their skin would burn. They were jealous that African Americans were stronger and larger people so they enslaved them -- a punishment more than undeserved.

If you were born into a life like this, then you never really had the option to live, and we talk about how unfair the world can be these days. We all have our bad days but we are somehow able to move forward. They lived a nightmare day in and day out.

By anon953430 — On May 26, 2014

I feel that slavery is still here today only because it was in back then.

By PelesTears — On Jan 08, 2011

@ GlassAxe- The history of slavery in the North is well documented through census counts and various colonial and state slave codes. Many states including Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut had laws governing how slaves were treated as well as their rights. There were also laws on the books that stated harsh penalties for free black men that allowed whites to make them slaves, or indentured servants as they were so politely called during the time. This could be the punishment for any free black who was caught harboring an escaped slave and could not pay the lofty fine for doing so.

Pennsylvania might be of particular interest to you. The state had a number of reported slaves, and some of the most common slave owners were the Quakers, Dutch and Swedes that had settled the region. The state of Pennsylvania did not actually emancipate slaves until 1948, even though the Pennsylvania emancipation law was passed in 1820. This gave slave owners 28 years of hard labor to recoup the investment made in raising these "people". As you assumed, the North is just as responsible for facilitating slavery as the south. The only reason slavery did not catch hold in the North as it did in the south was because it was cheaper to pay the Irish and Scottish immigrants coming off the docks than it was to buy and maintain slaves.

By GlassAxe — On Jan 08, 2011

@ Parmnparsley- I agree with you wholeheartedly, but what I want to know is if the south was the only area of the country that enacted slave codes. I have read that many northerners secretly kept slaves during the time of slavery, just as there were many Southerners against slavery. What did the abolitionists do in response to the slave codes? How did northern slave owners get away with keeping slaves? It seems like so much is made about geographic location when it comes to blaming people for slavery, but it seems like some Northern states were just as guilty for keeping slavery alive as the south. Does anyone know anything about this lesser known part of the history of slavery? Sometimes I feel like people believe that slavery was only a thing of the south and forget that every state had its hands in the greed.

By parmnparsley — On Jan 07, 2011

The trade of slaves was despicable, and the people who thought up these slave codes were of the most ignorant upbringing. The slave codes gave slaves fewer rights than animals. There were laws about what you could do to an animal. It was not legal to rape and sodomize animals, nor was it legal to kill and maim animals for no reason. That was such a backward time in history. To make it illegal for someone to defend his or her life is inhuman and unconstitutional. Not even a wild animal would expect another animal to simply lie down when its life is on the line. Only a sick and twisted mind can think up laws like this. Greed can make people sick, and slavery was nothing but one group of people exerting control over another out of pure greed and hatred.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a America Explained writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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