Slave Literacy Laws: Blamed on Abolitionists

Revenge Against Northern Abolitionists Is Taken Against the Slaves

4/19/20231 min read

Faced with a growing abolitionist movement in the North, and the occasional slave rebellion in the South, the slaveowners ratcheted down on the control of the slaves by banning slave literacy and slave meetings for religious purposes.

"The laws against the literacy of slaves were not just meant to prevent escapes, but to suppress even the desire for freedom. If a slave wanted to write, say to a relative on another plantation, “[t]he white people had to write and read all the letters that passed between us.” The dominant everyday message, from Congress to the statehouse, from the churches to the farms, was that there was no other way of life than slavery, and illiteracy ensured that nothing challenged that message."

"South Carolina law enhanced the penalties for teaching slaves to read - writing had long been banned - in 1834. If a free black was caught doing so, he was fined and whipped - whites faced prison. In Virginia in 1854, a woman was tried for such crimes and found guilty. The judge told her, '[y]ou are guilty of one of the vilest crimes that ever disgraced society; and the jury have found you so. You have taught a slave girl to read the Bible.'"

The slaveowners and their literate supporters always claimed, in unison:

"I can tell you. It was the abolition agitation. If the slave is not allowed to read his bible, the sin rests upon the abolitionists; for they stand prepared to furnish him with a key to it, which would make it, not a book of hope, and love, and peace, but of despair, hatred and blood; which would convert the reader, not into a Christian, but a demon. [. . .] Allow our slaves to read your writings, stimulating them to cut our throats! Can you believe us to be such unspeakable fools?"