Today we will take a look at the Virginia Slave Codes. In the early 1700’s the legislators in the State of Virginia created a set of codes classifying all non-white, non-christian servants (except Turks and Moors) as chattel property and into forced servitude for life within the borders of that state. Similar codes were developed and enforced everywhere in the colonies.
Virginia Slave Laws
The first known enslaved persons in the Virginia colony arrived in 1619, when a Dutch warship delivered 20 blacks captured from a Spanish slave ship, including three women, to Jamestown. These first blacks came as agricultural laborers, and their actual status may have been more similar to that of a white indentured servant than to a slave.
Thousands of English workers came to Virginia in the seventeenth century, agreeing to work as servants and laborers for at least six years in return for land. Enslaved blacks and white indentured workers toiled side-by-side on the farms and tobacco plantations in the first 30 years of the colony’s history. They worked, ate, played, and even lived together.
Some of these enslaved Africans and indentured Europeans even married and had children. More than a few of the enslaved, ended up as freed persons, somehow acquiring a little land or else working as skilled workers for themselves. In other words, the line between slavery and freedom was not always starkly visible in the early years.
By 1700, things had changed. Black captives became slaves for life and were defined as chattel property, meaning that they had no more rights before the law than any other piece of property, such as a cow or even a plow. Whites and blacks were given different work assignments and blacks were no longer listed in ledger books or population counts with a surname, unlike white indentured servants.
Laws were passed making intermarriage illegal, and Anglican priests began preaching that blacks were inferior human beings. Most importantly, white Virginians passed a series of slave codes or laws aimed at defining in detail the lives of the enslaved persons with whom they lived.
The Virginia slave code 1699 emphasized that whippings and other forms of corporeal punishment had become standard practice for dealing with the enslaved. Unlike an indentured servant, adding years of service to one’s term of service did not work with people who were slaves for life. Some of the statutes were very narrow, such as the law that punished pig stealing by nailing the thief’s severed ears to a pillory post. Statutes stipulated when slaves could testify in court, the penalty for burning barns and crops, how slaveholders were to be compensated by the colonial government whenever one of their enslaved persons was executed for their crimes, and how slaves were to be punished for insulting whites.
Numerous statutes detailed the procedures to be used in handling runaway slaves. (A runaway slave named Billy was so notorious in his escape that a special law was passed in 1701 ordering that he be killed immediately upon his capture.) Regulating relations between whites and blacks appeared on the statute books as early as 1630, punishing white men with a whipping before an assembly of slaves for have sex with a black woman. Stricter laws against miscegenation did not appear, however, until after the 1690s, when marriages between whites and blacks became illegal, with the white person banished from the colony as punishment.
In addition to laws governing the conduct of enslaved persons, Virginia laws began in 1705 to define more clearly the status of enslaved people as property. They could be used as collateral for borrowing money and as assets in the payment of debts. Creditors, moreover, had first claim on enslaved persons in settlement of debts, and even those who had been freed could be re-enslaved to settle a debt owned by their former master. Also, the widow of a slaveholding husband was entitled to one third of her deceased husband’s slaves including those who had been promised their freedom.
Over time, the legal status of enslaved persons in Virginia reflected two dominant tendencies:
First, blacks imported from Africa declined in status from being agricultural laborers to being enslaved persons deemed chattel for life with few protections under the law. Historians disagree on why this happened. Some contend that it was a rather thoughtless process that gradually emerged for economic reasons and in the context of the times.
Africans enslaved for life were cheaper to use once the price of importing and keeping white indentured servants began to rise. It was relatively easy to treat them as property because of the prevailing racist attitudes among whites toward blacks. Others say that it was a more conscious effort on the part of white planter elites to replace a more rebellious white labor force with enslaved blacks following upon Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.
When Nathaniel Bacon led an army of backcountry farmers and some free blacks against local Indians, and then revolted against the landed elite living in the tidewater area of the Colony, upper-class Virginians feared class conflict. They moved to stop this by de-emphasizing imports of indentured servants from England in favor of enslaved persons from Africa. In addition, they began a campaign to separate blacks from whites socially and culturally by supporting laws and talk based upon the assumption that all black people were inferior by reason of their race.
Secondly, laws and attitudes governing enslaved persons became more restrictive over time, especially in the nineteenth century. This strictness in the policing of slaves in the nineteenth century reversed what looked to be a weakening of such controls just prior to the Americans Revolution.
Historians suggest that it occurred in response to (1) the growing attacks upon slavery by northern abolitionists, (2) the aborted slave uprising of Gabriel Prosser in 1800 and the modestly successful slave revolt of Nat Turner in 1831, and (3) the importance of the domestic slave trade to the Virginia economy. On the eve of the American Revolution, many white Virginians believed, along with Thomas Jefferson, that slavery was a “necessary evil,” that it would probably die out in time due to the exhausted soils and a declining tobacco economy. But by 1830, many whites argued that slavery was a “positive good,” and they supported laws designed to prevent slave rebellions and runaways.
What’s more, many slaveholders needed to crack down on various informal freedoms that had grown up–such as being allowed to visit neighboring plantations at night–in order to keep blacks from running away. Hundreds of blacks fled slavery after the 1830s rather than being sold in the domestic slave trade to the cotton and sugar regions of the Deep South. Slave trading had become a vital part of the Virginian economy, and this meant stricter slave controls.
Virginia legislators even began to pass laws making it nearly impossible for slaveholders to free their enslaved property. Free blacks were prohibited from migrating into Virginia and could be sold into slavery (1851). A law passed in 1847 declared that free blacks charged with a misdemeanor were to be punished in the same manner as an enslaved person guilty of the same offense.
So perplexed were lawmakers by the problem of how to handle the free black population that in 1815 the Virginia Assembly passed a resolution asking the Federal government to find a place on the northern Pacific Coast where free black Virginians could be resettled. The Virginia legislature even enacted a statute in1856 allowing free blacks to enslave themselves to a master of their choosing.
Thanks for your attention.