South Carolina Slave Laws Summary and Record

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South Carolina Slave Laws Summary and Record

Reproduced from the website cache of Slavery in America

South Carolina was a slave colony from its inception. Although the first Africans arrived in 1526 as part of a large Spanish expedition from the West Indies, planters who later emigrated from Barbados established large scale slavery in the Carolinas on indigo and rice plantations. Africans were experienced in working with these crops and adapted well to South Carolina’s hot, humid climate. The black population outnumbered whites by 1708, and remained in the majority in the low country along the coast even as whites began filling up the back county starting in the 1740s. The black population in the low country was closely tied to its African roots, developing the Gullah language, which is a type of pidgin language blending European and African dialects.

Black slavery was legally recognized by the Carolina Grand Council in 1669, and a number of specific statutes were passed beginning in 1686 aimed at controlling the emerging slave population. Among other matters, the code established a slave’s status as freehold property, which was a higher level of property than chattel. Freehold property in theory could not be moved or sold from the estate, similar to the position of medieval serfs who were tied to specific farms or feudal estates. The slaveholder had use of an enslaved person’s services, but could not claim absolute ownership. By1696, however, the status of enslaved Africans in South Carolina had been degraded to chattel property in law and in practice. Enslaved blacks, mulattoes and American Indians could be bought and sold, and their children were enslaved for life.

In addition to defining the status of enslaved blacks, the 1690 code explicitly spelled out the punishment for those who struck a white person and for runaways. First offenders were severely whipped, followed by slitting the nose and burning “some part of his face with a hot iron” and even death for those who attacked whites a second or third time. Enslaved blacks found off the plantation without written permission from their master were considered runaways. Those who ran away more than once could be branded with an R on their cheek and might suffer the loss of an ear. Castrating male slaves and branding an R on the left cheek of female slaves punished a fourth offense. A fifth failed attempt could be punished by either cutting the tendon in one leg or sentencing the enslaved person to death. .

The freeing of enslaved persons–manumission–was not regulated by statute in South Carolina until 1712, when the colonial legislature decreed that slaveholders or the colonial governor or provincial council could manumit enslaved persons for good cause. Later legislation stated that manumitted blacks had to leave the colony. If the freed person failed to leave South Carolina within six months, he or she would be re-enslaved and sold at public auction. By 1800, manumission laws had become more stringent. In response to some slaveholders who freed troublesome, old, or sickly blacks who then became burdens on the community, the legislature required the approval of a commission for any future manumissions. By 1820, enslaved African Americans could only be freed by an act of the legislature. Other statutes, such as one passed in1822, prohibited free blacks from entering the state.

South Carolina passed a new slave code in 1740, more commonly known as the “Negro Act.” The code, which was passed in response to the Stono slave rebellion of 1739, remained largely unaltered until emancipation in 1865. The act also served as a model for the Georgia slave code of 1755. The new code further stripped enslaved blacks of any kind of protection under the law. Punishment for the murder of an enslaved person by a white, for example, was reduced to a mere misdemeanor punishable by a fine. Slaves could never physically attack a white person except in defense of the slaveholder’s life who owned them. They could be executed for plotting insurrection or conspiring to run away, burning a barrel of tar or a “stack of rice,” or teaching another slave “the knowledge of any poisonous root, plant, [or] herb.” Much of the Negro Act was devoted to controlling minute aspects of a slave’s life. For example, slaves were not allowed to dress in a way “above the condition of slaves.” Their clothes could only be made from a list of approved coarse fabrics. Blacks were prohibited from learning how to read and write, and were not permitted to assemble with one another. Blacks in violation of these provisions were subject to flogging.

Criminal trials for enslaved blacks were often held in a local tavern or county store. The mixing of alcohol with the drama of a black defendant on trial often for his or her life created a bawdy and raucous atmosphere. One historian found that between the passage of the Negro Act of 1740 and the beginning of the American Revolution, at least 191 (and probably more) enslaved blacks received the death penalty for a criminal offense. Between 1750 and 1759, nearly 63 percent of the slaves executed were convicted of a violent crime against a white. Another 16 percent were convicted of a violent offense against a slave. Two blacks were convicted of a property crime (arson, burglary or theft), and only one enslaved black was found guilty of conspiring to revolt. Between 1800 and 1854, nearly 58 percent of the South Carolina enslaved blacks executed were convicted of a violent crime and 21 percent for a property offense. Another 21 percent were executed for insurrection, a result of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822. (If this event were not considered, the statistics for 19th century execution of enslaved persons closely mirror those for the 18th century.)

As the black population continued to increase in numbers, South Carolina lawmakers feared the consequences of a black majority and tried to halt the importation of slaves. A 1716 statute required planters to import one white servant for each 10 slaves. A bounty of 25 pounds was also paid for each white servant imported. In 1719, a duty of 10 pounds for African blacks was assessed on importing slaveholders and 30 pounds for blacks from the West Indies. (South Carolina whites believed that blacks from the West Indies were more rebellious than slaves imported directly from Africa.) In 1792, South Carolina passed “an Act to prohibit the Importation of Slaves from Africa, or other places beyond the sea, into this state, for two years.” By 1800, slaves could not be imported from offshore, and no one could bring in more than 10 slaves from anywhere in the country. These efforts did little to curb black population growth in South Carolina. By 1860, more than 400,000 enslaved blacks lived in South Carolina, representing 58 percent of the population. And the large majority of these enslaved people had been born in the state as second and third generation African Americans.

Sources Used


Acts of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina from 1791 to December 1794, Volume 1. Columbia, S.C.: D. & J.J. Faust, State Printers, 1808.

The Statutes at Large of South Carolina containing the Acts from 1838, Vol. 7, Columbia, S.C.: A.H. Pemberton State Printer, 1840.


Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, & Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Reiss, Oscar. Blacks in Colonial America. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1997.

M. Eugene Sermons, “The Legal Status of the Slave in South Carolina 1670-1740,” Journal of Southern History 28 (1962), p. 462-67.

Wood, Peter H. Black, Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974.

South Carolina Laws on Slavery from the Colonial Era to the Civil War

Slave code 1686 Statute Regulated slaves’ status to freehold property, except when slaves are used to pay their owners’ debts. Freehold was a higher form of property than chattel. Colony’s first black code prohibited whites from trading with enslaved persons. Enslaved blacks were required to have passes when leaving the plantation. Slaves found on another plantation on holidays or Sundays, even with a pass, were to be flogged. If more than seven slaves were found unaccompanied by a white, they could be taken and given 20 lashes. A master cold hire out the services of a black and keep his earnings. Slaves were prohibited from having access to a boat. If a slave attacked a white, he was to be whipped by a policeman. A second offense resulted in a whipping, branding of his face, and slitting of his nose; a third offense carried the deatlh penalty. Stealing pigs or chickens was a misdemanor, punishable by a brand to the right cheek. Slaves were not tried by juries, but by two justices and three freeholders. The testimony of other slaves  
Slave code 1690 Statute The “Act for the Better Ordering of Slaves” declared that blacks, mulattoes, and Indians, who were bought and sold, were enslaved as well as their children. Part of the statute dealt with slave violence toward whites. The penalty for a first offense was a severe whipping. A second offense was to be punished by a severe whipping, slitting the nose, and burning the face. Punishment for a third offense was to be determined by two justices and three freeholders, including death or any other punishment. Slaves were protected if they had acted to defend their owners or at their masters’ command. This statute also prohibited enslaved persons from leaving their plantations without written permission or in the company of whites. Slaves apprehended without a ticket were classified as runaways, and owners would be charged 40 shillings for their capture. Persons who failed to apprehend such slaves were to be fined. Code declared that any person “out of wilfulness, wantoness, or bloody mindedness” who killed an enslaved  
Property status 1696 Statute Disallowed earlier statute recognizing slaves as freehold property. Replaced by code adopted from the Code of Barbados, passed in 1698.  
Military duty 1704 Decree Urged commanders to appoint five freeholders to compile a list of able bodied slaves in the district for military duty. Owners could appear before the freeholders and explain why their slaves should be exempt from military service. Owners who refused to allow a slave to serve was fined five pounds. Owners received compensation for slaves killed in action. Slaves who killed or captured an enemy were freed as were slaves who were taken prisoner, escaped and returned to their masters. Wounded slaves were also freed and their owners compensated. If an owner freed a slave for honorable service, the new freedman was forced to leave the colony or be re-enslaved.  
Runaways 1712 Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves Runaway slaves older than 16, absent for more than 20 days, received up to 40 lashes. Owners could pay the constable 20 shillings to carry out the sentence. A second escape was punished with an R being branded on the right cheek. Masters were fined 10 pounds if they failed to carry out the punishment. A third runaway attempt was punished by 40 lashes, and one of the slave’s ears was cut off. A fourth escape was punished by castration. If the slave died from this procedure, the master was compensated for his value from the public treasury. If the fugitive was a woman and she ran away a fourth time, she was flogged, branded with an R on her cheek, and her left ear was cut off. A fifth runaway attempt could be punished by the death sentence or cutting the Achilles tendon in one leg. Slave masters who failed to carry out the prescribed punishment were fined. A free black accused of assisting a runaway received a whipping and his forehead was branded. Slaves apprehended off their plantation who failed to show a pass could be beaten, maimed or killed.  
Killing of slaves 1712 Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves A master who killed a slave in a careless manner was fined 50 pounds. If he killed another man’s black, the fine was the full value of the slave to his master and 25 pounds to the public treasury. If a white servant killed another person’s slave, he served the slave’s master five years after his indenture ended.  
Work for hire 1712 Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves Prohibited masters to permit their slaves to go and work where they pleased unless the slaves gave their masters some of their earnings.  
Manumission 1712 Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves Slaves could be freed by their masters for meritorious service, or by the governor or provincial council.  
Testimony 1712 Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves The testimony of one enslaved black could be sufficient for the conviction of another enslaved person in all petty larcenies or trespassing cases not more than 40 shillings. No free or enslaved black was to receive the death penalty, except on confession, or by the oath of Christian evidence, or the positive evidence of two enslaved persons.  
Compensation for executed slaves 1712 Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves Established a system of public compensation for the owners of blacks sentenced to death for a capital crime.  
Freedom of assembly 1712 Municipal ordinance Charlestown prohibited blacks from entering the city on Sundays and holidays in order “to drink, quarrel, fight, curse and swear, and profane the Sabbath … resorting in great companies together, which may give them an opportunity of executing any wicked designs.”  

Written by canarypapers

July 23, 2009 at 8:56 am

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