3.1.4 The Old South (1607-1787): The Rise of Slavery

  • The law of slavery has been extinct for nearly 150 years, but from the mid-1600s to 1865 it was a major component of American law, both in the North and the South.  Slavery law was complex and covered many subjects, including:
    • Slave status:  Should black Americans be presumed to be free or slaves in cases of doubt?  How much black “blood” could a person have and still be treated as white under the law?
    • Manumission:  Should masters be allowed to free their slaves and if so, under what conditions?
    • Slave trade and migration:  Should slaveowners be allowed to import slaves from outside the United States?  From other states?
    • Owner-slave relations:  Should states act to curb mistreatment of slaves by their owners?
    • Slaves’ civil rights:  Should slaves be allowed to assemble and travel freely and to worship without white supervision? 
    • Slaves’ economic rights:  Should slaves be allowed to retain money earned from work done in their free time?  Should whites be permitted to educate slaves?
  • Slavery followed different paths in the colonies of the coastal upper South.  Slaves were profitable only if they could be used for year-round crops such as tobacco, and by 1776 wheat and corn, both seasonal crops, were replacing tobacco as the dominant crops in Maryland and Delaware.  But tobacco and slavery both remained pillars of Virginia’s and North Carolina’s economy.
  • Thomas Jefferson captured the essence of the Revolutionary spirit when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that it was a “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.”  Most Americans, including most of the Founders, understood this ideal to be limited to white males but some had a more expansive vision.  As a result, there was a significant uptick in manumissions (owner grants of freedom to slaves) throughout the United States, including the South, during the Revolutionary era and slave laws were relaxed somewhat as well.  That would end after 1790 (see § ___).    





North Carolina







1663: Slave system begins




1695: Slaves’ rights of assembly restricted

1661: Slave system begins

1680: Slaves’ movements restricted, passes required

1691:  Newly-freed slaves required to leave colony

1692: Slave courts created




1700: Slave system begins; slaves’ rights of assembly limited






1740:  Manumission legalized; young freed slaves must be apprenticed, bond must be given to secure cost of maintaining old freed slaves









1752:  Manumission prohibited unless security given for freed slave’s maintenance


1723: Legislative approval required for manumission

1723:  Free blacks denied right to vote

1726: Patrol law enacted (local whites must patrol at night to monitor slaves’ movements)

1769: Hiring out of slaves restricted

1715: slave system begins


1770s: increased manumission (Quaker influence)


1787:  Foreign, domestic slave trade outlawed; free blacks denied right to vote



1783: Legal code enacted for free blacks; no suffrage; importation of slaves prohibited




1780s: Manumission laws liberalized; manumission by will allowed



British tobacco ad, mid-1700s, showing slave chlldren on a Virginia tobacco plantation - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Notice of capture and imprisonment of fugitive slave, Williamsburg, Virginia (1766) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons