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Conversations with America: Laws and Resistance

Updated on April 24, 2011

The Unfree, the Semi-free, and the Frightened

Laws reveal the fears of societies. Laws are responses to circumstances, and statements of desire. When a law is often repeated it tells us that the problem was not solved by prohibition, but continued in spite of it. The sumptuary laws of the middle ages and the Renaissance tell us, for example, that the rising merchants, whose wealth was not in land, did not, despite fines and other penalties, give up the fine cloths and furs it could afford. Laws governing slaves and social relations between slaves and freemen tell us that in the colonies the interests of the elites in separating servants and slaves, white men and black, were not wholly successful.

In the early days of colonial slavery, slavery was extra-legal. It was not illegal, for there was no law prohibiting it. It was not legal, for there was no statute that allowed and defined it. After the arrival of the first slaves in the English colonies at Jamestown in 1619, there was a period of ambiguity. Were these black laborers slaves, bound for life to those who purchased them, or were they servants, more akin to the white indentured servants who served those who purchased their contracts for a period of time, and were then free to pursue their own interests? The Virginians with their newly acquired black laborers quite simply did not know. In 1623 and 1624, blacks were listed as servants, but by first name alone, while white servants were listed by their first name and surname. These blacks joined a large population of unfree white men: between 70 and 85% of white colonists in Virginia and Maryland of the 18th century were indentured servants, their contracts sold and their persons subject to the whims of their masters and mistresses until the contract expired or they escaped1.

Who were these indentured servants? They were poor Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Irishmen who signed an indenture, a contract that bound them work for the purchaser for a period of five or seven years in return for passage to the colonies. They were, like slaves, a profitable commodity to the merchants, captains, and traders who transported them and to the masters who purchased them. According to Abbot Smith, the most powerful cause of the system of indentures "was the pecuniary profit to be made by shipping them"2. Nor were they all willing men and women. In 1618 an agreement was made between the City of London and the Virginia Company by which vagrant children were transported on theDutyto be sold for fieldwork to tobacco farmers. The first of these 'Duty boys', one-quarter of whom were girls, landed in Virginia in 1619. Between 1619 and 1622, London shipped 300 children to Virginia; 12 were still alive in 16243.

In their concern for profit, the ships carrying indentures to the Americas were packed tight for a voyage of eight to twelve weeks, while provisions were sufficient only for an optimistic time schedule. Ships that struck bad weather or delays ran out of food. TheSea-Flowerleft Belfast in 1741; it took sixteen weeks to cross the Atlantic, arriving in Boston with 46 of 106 passengers dead, six of them eaten by the survivors of the voyage. On another ship, 32 children died of hunger and disease during the passage4. These numbers are dwarfed by the fatalities involved in the Middle Passage, but they occurred by the same causes--greed and casual brutality.

Once in America, indentures were sold in public auctions. They were subject to beatings, whippings, and, if female, rape. Court records in Maryland noted many suicides among the indentures. They could not marry freely, but their masters must consent to it. They could be separated from their families if the master desired it. In Pennsylvania, marriage without the master's consent was to be prosecuted as adultery and any resulting children considered bastards. Statutes existed to punish excessive abuse of servants, but these laws were not rigidly enforced and only masters could sit on a jury. The difference in power between master and servant, reflected in a court of masters, could only result in skewed justice, as in the Virginia trial of a man for the rape of two female servants. He was a gentleman of bad character, known to beat his wife and children, and to have whipped and chained a male servant until he died. The evidence against him was sure. He was acquitted of rape, although scolded by the court. In New England, the law did no better by servants. In 1666, a mistress cut off a servant's toes, and the man died. She and her husband were acquitted by a jury of their peers5.

Imported Africans, then, even if considered servants, would find conditions in North America bleak. Rapidly it became clear that they were not servants only, bound to their masters for a brief period, but slaves bound to their owners for life. At first, the division between white servants and black slaves appeared in differentiation of sentence in courts of law. White servants and black received different sentences for the same crime, even for crimes committed together, with the black transgressor receiving a harsher penalty than the white. For example, three runaway servants, two white and one black, were re-captured and appeared before the court. The white servants were penalized by the addition of one year to their indenture. The black servant, however, was ordered to serve his master for the remainder of his natural life6.

The origin of Virginia's slave code lay in the demand for labor, and the perception that there was, or would soon be, a shortage of workers for the vital tobacco crop. The first Virginian slave code was concerned with providing masters with workers and fixing those workers in permanent relationships. Thus, a 1662 Virginia law declared the status of children born in the colony was determined by the mother's status as free or slave. In 1667 another law stated that baptism did not change one's status as bound or free. Next door, Maryland passed laws establishing slavery in 1663, with provisions that tried to impose slave status on all blacks born there, regardless of their mother's position as bound or free. It was not until 1681 that Maryland, I imagine regretfully, submitted to the practice of other English colonies, declaring black children born of free black women and born of white women were free themselves7.

Slave codes in the United States were greatly concerned with social contacts between the slaves and free men. Virginia's response to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, a rebellion against the government of the colony which united in its forces blacks and whites, was to attempt to outlaw all socializing between the two races. John Adams, second President of the United States, looked at the mob at the center of the Boston Massacre, and saw a social problem, "a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes, and mulattos, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars…"8.

The slave population continued to grow, and, as it grew, it became both more necessary to the economy, the structure on which Virginia and the Southern states were built, and more dangerous, as the number of black slaves continued to climb, far outstripping the small population of large landowners who owned most of the colony's slaves. Fear of uprisings, of a violent, cataclysmic revenge, drove the Southern states to enact increasingly severe slave codes and to bind the whole of the white population into overseers of the enslaved. The rather mundane punishment of whipping was augmented by mutilation and branding9. The slave owners were afraid, and their fear was in some measure justified. They were bringing in more and more slaves, and these slaves were becoming more difficult to control. Given an opportunity to be free, they would attempt it, and only a great and dreadful coercion would suffice to keep them on the plantations.

The North American colonies first large scale slave insurrection did not take place in Virginia, however, nor in the rice fields of South Carolina. It took place in New York City in 1712. Twenty-three slaves armed themselves with guns and knives, meeting in an orchard. They set fire to a slave-owner's house, and attacked the white men who responded to the blaze, killing nine and injuring six. Twenty-one of the accused blacks were found guilty and executed, and, on December 10, 1712, a statutory response to the insurrection was passed, imposing the death penalty for arson, restricting manumission, and requiring that land and hereditary property in the colony be denied to any freed 'Negro, Indian or mulatto'. In 1741, the rumor that blacks and whites were together conspiring to seize control of the government began after a series of fires. A young indentured servant named Mary Burton came forward, collecting a reward, and implicating almost 200 people. She continued to denounce people, until justices suspended the trials as she named leading citizens and their slaves. In this wave of hysteria, at least 150 blacks were accused of conspiracy, 18 were hanged, 13 burned alive, and 70 banished from New York City. Four whites were hanged, two of them women10.

Resistance in slavery began in Africa and continued in the colonies. Resistance was enacted in many forms: attempted mutinies on the slave ships, attempted revolts on land, flight, murder, suicide, work slowdowns, sabotage, and simply in the retention of one's own personality, a sense of self and of relationship to others, that slavery attempted to remove. Of all of these possibilities, white slave-owners imagined insurrection in the most detail, but in daily life and the management of their plantations they dealt with all the others far more frequently.

In South Carolina, St. Augustine beckoned to the slaves, and many ran for it, taking advantage of the rivalry between England and Spain. Sometimes Yamasee Indians helped the escaping slaves reach their destination. The Spanish Crown played a role in attracting South Carolina slaves, offering freedom to Catholic fugitives in 1693 and 1733. Many of South Carolina's slaves were drawn from Angola, an area with long exposure to Catholicism. The royal offer of freedom and the familiarity of Catholicism contributed to Carolina's Stono Rebellion of September 9, 1739, and to the creation of a sizeable Maroon community, the first black town in North America,--Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, more commonly called Fort Mose, or just Mose. This town was founded in 1738 by South Carolina runaways. It was led by Francisco Menendez, himself a runaway, who had converted to Roman Catholicism and enjoyed good relations with the Yamasee Indians whom he had joined in their fight against Carolina colonists. In 1763, when Spain was forced to surrender Florida, the inhabitants of Mose resettled in Cuba, never to return11.

The Africans brought into the English colonies had no way to get home. They were suddenly and violently cut off from all they knew, their families, and often from those who spoke their language, who knew their songs, who told the same stories. The true greatness of humanity may, indeed, lie not in the intellect of Jefferson, the dignity of Washington, or the wit of Benjamin Franklin, but in the strength and the will to resist that sustained thousands of captive Africans in this very strange, at times very brutal, country.


  1. Zinn, Howard.A People's History of America: 1492-Present. p. 25.
  2. qtd. Zinn, p. 43
  3. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. p.41
  4. Zinn, p. 43
  5. Zinn, p. 44-45
  6. Franklin and Higginbotham, p. 54
  7. ibid. p. 55
  8. ibid., p 87
  9. ibid., p. 56
  10. ibid. p. 57
  11. ibid., 78-80


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