Roman Law and American Slavery

(Image: Slave collar: "I have run away; seize me")

6/20/20232 min read

"In England, however, the villein [(in medieval England) a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord or manor to whom he paid dues and services in return for land] was in the eye of the law a villein only in relation to his lord. The villein, however, of the very lowest type, was vastly better off than the slave of the ancients, or the slave in America, for to all persons other than his lord, he was a freeman. [. . .] It therefore came about that the leading legal principles applicable to property in slaves were borrowed from the [Roman] civil law. The English common law knew nothing of it."

The slave in the U.S. “was deemed the personal property of his owner. The consequences of this rule were very far reaching, because, instead of becoming adscriptus gleb [a tenant or serf bound to the land in Roman law], the American slave was liable to all the vicissitudes and transportations of other personal property. [. . .]"

"We thus see another leading distinction between American slavery and European feudalism. Under the latter system, the serfs, being for the most part annexed to the freehold, enjoyed all the advantages naturally arising from fixed abodes, not the least of these being family life; but the slave was denied all of these advantages. The fixed, hard rules of the Roman law bound him closely to his owner.”

"He had no political rights, and very few civil rights. He could make no contracts unless specially authorized by law. As a natural consequence, he could strictly speaking hold no property. Unlike the villein, 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.

Although the marriages of slaves were not recognized by the law, there was developed a quasi recognition of the marital tie which was always considered morally good. Following the rules of the Roman law, it was a part of the American slave law that the offspring followed the condition of the mother."

B. J. R. “Features of American Slavery.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 1, no. 4, 1893, pp. 474–90. JSTOR, Accessed 20 June 2023.