6.1.2 Deep South (1670-1803): International Origins of Slavery




% of total population

Free Black


Free Black


South Carolina






























  • 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 different parts of the South.  In the late 1700s slavery became less profitable in the Old South as wheat and corn (seasonal crops not well suited to making good use of year-round slave labor) replaced cotton and tobacco.  As a result, slavery steadily decayed in Maryland and Delaware after about 1750.  The spirit of the Revolutionary era, embodied in Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence of the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal,” inspired many Americans – including some in the South – to think that perhaps some fundamental rights should extend to black Americans.  As a result, there was a significant uptick in manumissions (owner grants of freedom to slaves) in many parts of the United States, including the Old South and Mountain South.   The freedom wave did not extend to South Carolina and Georgia, perhaps because slavery continued to be profitable and because the fears engendered by recent slave rebellions remained fresh. 
  • Nor did revolutionary sentiment extend to French and Spanish territory.  The French Code Noir and the Spanish Siete Partidas struck a balance between  strict regulation of slave activities and granting slaves some basic rights in recognition of their humanity.  The balance satisfied settlers in the territories, and there were no significant changes in slave law in Louisiana and Florida French territories until those territories came under American control.       


South Carolina Slave Code (1740-1821)

(also followed in Georgia)

French Gulf CoastCode Noir (1724-1763, 1800-1803)

Spanish Gulf Coast - Siete Partidas (1565-1800)

Sargent’s Code – Mississippi Territory


Limits on freeing slaves

Not covered.

Must get local legislature’s permission; slave can only be freed for extraordinary reasons (such as saving owner’s life).

Slaves may not purchase their own freedom or be freed by will.


No restrictions on freeing slaves; slaves may purchase their own freedom and can sue to enforce emancipation provisions of their masters’ will.

Slaves that live apart from their masters gain their freedom after 30 years if runaways, after 20 years if master lives in another country, after 10 years if master lives in the same country. 

Not covered

Restrictions on business and education

£100 fine for teaching slaves to read or write. 

Slaves may not conduct trade in Charleston.


Slaves may not possess property.

Slaves may not sell commodities without master’s permission.

Slaves may not possess property.


Slaves may not engage in trade; masters may not hire out slaves.

Right to punish slaves

Third persons may “moderately correct” slaves, may kill slaves in self-defense.

No restrictions except that slaves may not be murdered; penalty for killing slave is £350-700 or imprisonment, depending on whether killing is murder or manslaughter.

Masters have broad right to punish but may not kill or maim slaves

Slaves convicted of striking master shall be put to death.


Courts may sell abused slaves to a new master to prevent further abuse.

Masters have broad right to punish but may not kill or maim slaves.


Slave families

No restrictions on breaking up slave families in sale.

Slave families must be sold together.


No restrictions on breaking up slave families in sale.

No restrictions on breaking up slave families in sale.

Restrictions on slaves:  bearing arms, freedom of movement and assembly

Slaves must have pass for all movements outside home.

Slaves may not keep boats.

Slaves may not travel in groups of more than 7 without white overseer.

Slaves may not use firearms except with master’s permission or if accompanied by a white person.


Slaves may not use firearms.

Slaves may not assemble in large groups.

Not covered.

Unlawful assemblies and seditious speeches by slaves to be punished by up to 50 stripes, 1 month imprisonment.

Plantation owners may not allow other slaves to stay on plantation more than 2 hours without owner’s permission.


Toussaint Louverture.
Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Dominican revolution (1791) which led many Dominicans to emigrate to Louisiana - courtesy New York Public Library

File:Code noir.jpg

Frontispiece of the Code Noir (1743) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons


"Free Woman of Color With Quadroon Daughter," New Orleans, late 1700s - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“If any person … shall willfully murder his own slave, or the slave of any other person, every such person shall … forfeit and pay [£700] … And if any person shall, on sudden heat or passion, or by undue correction, kill his own slave … he shall forfeit [£350] … And in case any person … shall willfully cut out the tongue, put out the eye, castrate, or cruelly scald, burn, or deprive any slave of any limb or member, or shall inflict any other cruel punishment, other than by whipping or beating … or by putting irons on, or confining or imprisoning such slave, shall forfeit [£100].” – South Carolina Slave Code (1740), Art. 37

"The master has full power over his slave to do with him what he pleases.  Nevertheless he can neither kill or wound him, notwithstanding the slave may deserve it, unless he does it under the orders of the judge of the place:  nor ought he to strike him in an unnatural and cruel manner.” – Las Siete Partidas (Partida 4th, Title 21, Law 6)

“The masters may also, when they believe that their slaves so deserve, chain them and have them beaten with rods or straps.  They shall be forbidden however from torturing them or mutilating an limb, at the risk of having the slaves confiscated and having extraordinary charges brought against them. … We enjoin our officers to criminally prosecute the masters, or their foreman, who have killed a slave … and to punish the master according to the circumstances.”Code Noir (Articles 42-43)

“Whereas, it has been the humane policy of all civilized nations, where slavery has been permitted, to protect this useful but degraded class of  men, from extreme cruelty, and oppression … no cruel or unusual punishments shall be inflicted on any slave with this Territory,”Sargent’s Code (Mississippi/Alabama, 1798)