Slave Codes in the South: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Slavery in the South
  • 0:55 Why the Slave Codes…
  • 1:45 What the Slave Codes Enforced
  • 3:35 How the Slave Codes…
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

At the height of slavery, many parts of the South had more slaves than free people. Learn how the fear of revolt combined with the monetary investment slaves represented drove the Southern states to enact the slave codes.

Slavery in the South

Since the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown only a few years after the English first arrived in Virginia, slaves had become an integral part of the economy of British North America, especially in the South. While New England had always managed to attract enough settlers through promises of religious freedom, the southern colonies of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia needed plenty of labor for their plantations, the large farms that produced crops like tobacco, cotton, and indigo that made the South wealthy.

This need continued after the American colonies gained their independence in 1783, and in many ways grew, as new slave states were added to the Union and new plantations were built. This growth exploded in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin. Suddenly, even more slaves were needed.

Why the Slave Codes Were Enacted

In many parts of the South, slaves soon outnumbered free people, and many Southerners feared the possibility of a revolt. These fears were well-founded, as the South had experienced a number of slave revolts. As transportation and communication spread across the country, the fear of slave revolts in the South grew.

Southerners had to look no further than Haiti, where a slave revolt had resulted in the utter destruction of a way of life that was indeed quite similar to what the white plantation class of the South enjoyed. In fact, that slave revolt had even led to the defeat of one of Napoleon's top generals! To this end, the state legislatures throughout the South began to pass slave codes, protecting slave owners' rights and outlining acceptable slave behavior and the consequences of misbehaving.

What the Slave Codes Enforced

In an attempt to control the slaves and avoid revolt, each Southern state enacted their own legislation, but there were common threads throughout. Slaves were legally defined as personal property and, therefore, could not own property of their own, enter into legal contracts (including marriage), vote, testify in court, or serve on a jury. It was illegal to teach a slave to read or write. In Virginia, it was illegal for a slave to fight a white person, even in self-defense. In South Carolina, slave quarters were searched every two weeks for weapons and other contraband.

However, it was clear from the wording on these laws that it wasn't just the revolts that worried the slave owners. Every slave was a considerable investment, costing their owners the equivalent of several thousand dollars in today's money. These people were not human beings to their owners, but legally owned personal property and an investment. As such, there was a real monetary loss if a slave ran away. Not surprisingly, the punishments were harsh for even trying, with laws that banned crossing state lines or even crossing bridges. For crossing a bridge, the punishment was a beating or imprisonment, but for crossing state lines, the fate was often death. Even learning to read, and thus being able to pass for a free black person, was punishable.

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