Overview of the System

Written in 1893: "The slave was a slave in relation to all the world."

5/22/20232 min read

“In leaving the plantation or town where he resided, the slave was required to have a pass, and unless he did have such a license, any white man finding him in the highway was authorized to apprehend and chastise him. Unlike the villein [a class of serf tied to the land under the feudal system], the slave was a slave in relation to all the world.

He could not marry, he could not buy or sell; nor could he keep for his own use any boat or canoe, or breed any horses or cattle. He could not, on his own account, hire any room, or house, or plantation. Nor was he able, without the permission of his owner, to use or carry any weapon, burn grass or brush, hunt game, or brand cattle.

As in ancient days, a special apparel was prescribed for the slave. In South Carolina, for example, he was forbidden to wear any goods finer than osnaburgs, calicoes, kerseys, or checks. [ . . .] The slave had no surname.

No chains and shackles clanked about the plantation as they did in ancient times. A far more effective means of inthralment [enslavement] was devised in the shape of those laws that forbade the imparting of any sort of knowledge to a bondsman.

The American slave-holder early learned that fetters were superfluous where ignorance was supreme. It seems that at first there was no serious opposition to teaching a slave how to read; but by and by, when the first abolitionist leaflets began to inveigh against this anomalous kind of property, the lawmakers commenced to add to the slave codes statutes which sought to prevent the education of the slave.

But in spite of these restrictions, the impulses of humanity not infrequently triumphed over the reactionary provisions of the slave statutes. ‘The best slaves in the State’ [South Carolina], declared the spotless O'Neall, ‘are those who can and do read the Scriptures. Again, who is it that teach your slaves to read? It generally is done by the children of the owners. Who would tolerate an indictment against his son or daughter for teaching a favorite slave to read? Such laws look to me as rather cowardly. It seems to me as if we were afraid of our slaves. Such a feeling is unworthy of a Carolina master.’

Especial force seems to have been attached to the laws against teaching a slave to write. This latter restriction apparently aimed at the prevention of communication on the part of the slave with people at a distance.

His reading appears to have been confined to the Bible.

In this connection it may be mentioned that in 1831, an amendment to the slave law of Mississippi contained the following section: ‘From and after the passage of this act, it shall not be lawful for any slave, free negro, or mulatto, to exercise the functions of a minister of the gospel, under the penalty of thirty-nine lashes : Provided, That it shall be lawful for any master or owner to permit his slave to preach upon his own premises, but not to permit any other slaves but his own to assemble there on such occasions.’ ”

Features of American Slavery, by B.J.R., in The Sewanee Review, August, 1893, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, available on JSTOR