Why was it illegal for slaves to read and write?

The Pass Laws, the Patrols, and the Slave Anti-Literacy Laws

6/1/20233 min read

  • The Pass System: During the entirety of the slave centuries, whether under British rule or American.- right up until the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, the slaves were controlled by one main rule. Local men, always much poorer than the plantation owners, saw to it that the one main rule was enforced, especially at night, without a police force. The rule was that slaves could not leave the farms and plantations without a written pass from the owner, his family or an overseer. This rule had the force of law in slave codes as far back, for example, as 1686 in South Carolina. The local men, on horseback, were called the “patrols.”

  • The Pass System: The punishments for violating the pass law were set forth in the slave codes in an arithmetic of cruelty, specifying the exact number of lashes that were to be inflicted on a slave caught without a pass. The pass system ensured total control of the labor population, especially in the countryside. The pass system kept slaves from going from one plantation to another. Any white person could stop a slave and ask for a pass, not just patrollers - written into law as early as 1720 in South Carolina.

  • Control of Runaways: More importantly, the pass system kept slaves from running away, and provided a built-in method of catching a runaway slave. There were about 50,000 runaways per year in the pre-war period in the South.

  • "Freedom Papers"; Fear of Rebellion, Escape and the Sharing of Grievances: The anti-literacy laws prevented slaves from writing from the very beginning of the slave codes - South Carolina passed its law banning the teaching of writing (but not reading) to a slave in 1740. This law kept slaves from writing, in addition to forged passes, their own “freedom papers” - manumission papers. In addition, writing could aid in the organization of rebellions, share locations of escape routes, or share slave grievances.

  • Preserving Racial Hierarchy: education was considered a privilege reserved for superior whites and seen as a threat to the existing racial hierarchy.

  • Ideological Justifications: Some proponents of slavery argued that teaching slaves to read and write would expose them to abolitionist literature, religious teachings that emphasized equality, and other ideas that questioned the institution of slavery.

  • The 1820 to 1850 period was one of tightening repression of the control of the slaves in the South, including the anti-literacy laws. 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. Georgia, in 1829, made it unlawful for whites, slaves and free blacks to teach a slave or a free black “to read or write, either written or printed characters.” Louisiana, in 1830, made it unlawful to teach a slave “to read or write.” Reading had become a crime.

  • Also, by denying slaves access to education and literacy, slave owners aimed to prevent the dissemination of information that could challenge their authority or inspire resistance.

  • In Virginia in 1854, a woman was tried for the crime of teaching literacy 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.”

  • Harriet Jacobs described a search of her cabin in the still widely-read book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and noted that a patrol “was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge.” She reported that “every box, trunk, closet and corner underwent a thorough examination”; the patrollers were surprised to find jars of preserves. Once, when the patrollers found “a bit of writing” - handwritten poems - the patrollers exclaimed: “this here yellow gal’s got letters!”