South Carolina’s earliest formal code of law regarding slaves, established in 1690, borrowed heavily from the statutes governing slavery on the Caribbean island of Barbados, which were enacted in 1661 as a measure to protect a small white elite from a large, restive African labor force. As they evolved throughout the colonial and antebellum years, the codes reflected the fears of the planting class and the racial character of slavery in the New World.
The 1690 “Act for the Better Ordering of Slaves,” which was quickly disallowed by the Lords Proprietors (who mistrusted the intentions of the colony’s Barbadian planters), codified the institution of chattel slavery in South Carolina. Slaves were required to get written passes from their masters to travel from the plantations. The act provided for corporal punishment of slaves through branding, nose-slitting, and emasculation. Following the disallowance by the proprietors, a new slave code, again based on Barbadian principles, was enacted in 1696 even though slaves constituted a minority of the population at the time. The situation of the colony’s nascent planting class during this time, however, made rigid enforcement of a slave code difficult. Fledgling planters often labored alongside their slaves and servants to clear land and raise livestock. In addition, slaves, many of them armed, frequently traveled unsupervised between plantations and to Charleston.
In the first decade of the eighteenth century, the African population surpassed the white population. Shortly thereafter a new slave code went into effect. The act of 1712 covered much of the same ground as the 1690 act. Under the new act, children followed the conditions of their mothers, thereby making slavery a perpetual status for the offspring of whites and slave women. Slaves who believed that they were held unjustly could sue for their freedom, but they did so against overwhelming legal odds. The 1712 act also levied a penalty if the ratio of unfree laborers to overseers exceeded six to one. It further provided, as a measure against slave insurrection and rowdiness, that slaves who came from the countryside to Charleston could be whipped for visiting the town to gamble or to engage in “any wicked designs.” As with earlier statutes, enforcement of the revised code was difficult and frequently haphazard. Slaves still found the means to move about with a level of freedom that many planters found disconcerting. And while the codes sanctioned and enforced the awesome power that planters as a class wielded over the slave population, individual slaves and slaveowners nevertheless negotiated for power on a daily basis on the plantations and elsewhere.
The Stono Rebellion in 1739 resulted in a more rigid slave code that would remain the basis for South Carolina slavery until its end in 1865, and which would influence slave codes throughout the South. The 1740 “Bill for the better ordering and governing of Negroes and other Slaves in this Province,” or the Negro Act, laid out the legal basis for a mature colonial society based on enslaved labor. It codified the slaves’ lack of access to the rights of English common law and constructed them as legal nonentities. They could not testify under oath, and the testimonies of whites continued to trump those of slaves. The murder of a slave by a white person was reduced to a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine. Interestingly, a slave could strike a white man to defend his master’s life but was forbidden from doing so to protect his own life. Penalties for slave crimes increased: execution was sanctioned for plotting rebellion (or running away), committing arson, or instructing other slaves in the use of poisonous plants. Any white person, not just slaveowners, was given the authority to arrest and punish blacks found in violation of the law. Almost every aspect of slave life came under tightened legal scrutiny. Slave writing was prohibited, as were drumming and playing horns for fear that these activities might awaken some revolutionary impulse. The Negro Act legislated slave clothing, suggesting that slaves should not dress above their social status, and proscribed certain fabrics. Slaves could not hire their own time or keep firearms.
In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the Negro Act was upheld by the General Assembly and “made perpetual.” Though the document was occasionally revised, it survived the years leading up to the Civil War basically intact. In 1822, following the Denmark Vesey scare, contact between slaves and free black sailors was prohibited as part of the Negro Seaman Acts, which also jailed free black sailors while their ships were in South Carolina ports. In 1841 the General Assembly outlawed manumission as a measure to cut down on the number of free people of color in the state. Slave codes, however, were never as all-encompassing as they appeared to be on paper. Even in the face of stifling legislation throughout the colonial and antebellum periods, slaves worked hard to maintain what little autonomy they could.
Henry, Howell M. The Police Control of the Slave in South Carolina. 1914. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968.
Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Sirmans, M. Eugene. “The Legal Status of the Slave in South Carolina, 1670–1740.” Journal of Southern History 28 (November 1962): 462–73.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Knopf, 1974.