Slave Code of South Carolina Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“so that the slave may be kept in due subjection and obedience, and the owners and other persons having the care and government of slaves may be restrained from exercising too great rigour and cruelty over them, and that the public peace and order . . . may be preserved”

Summary Overview

Written by provincial governor William Bull and the colonial legislature in the wake of the Stono Rebellion of 1739—the largest slave rebellion in the continental English colonies—the Slave Code of South Carolina sought to formally establish laws that both restricted the ability of enslaved persons from organizing such an uprising again and, to a lesser extent, sought to tamp down on the excesses that encouraged them to do so. The laws nevertheless heavily favored the rights of slaveholders over those of slaves, helping cement the lack of basic civil and legal privileges afforded slaves for the duration of the institution by transforming certain colonial customs regarding the ownership and treatment of slaves into law. The Slave Code of 1740 intensified restrictions established under earlier colonial codes, effectively squashing attempts by wrongfully enslaved people to prove their freedom and even disallowing African cultural practices. It later served as a model for the slave code adopted in colonial Georgia.

Defining Moment

Slavery had been an accepted part of South Carolina culture since the colony’s inception in the mid-seventeenth century. Before the establishment of the slave trade from Africa, English settlers enslaved the local American Indian people they encountered upon landing in the colony. The earliest enslaved Africans in South Carolina arrived as the property of white Caribbean planters, and before long the colony formally acknowledged the institution. Over the next several decades, the enslaved black population grew and the already limited legal rights of slaves declined. The expansion of the slave trade accelerated the rise in the number of South Carolina’s slaves in comparison to the growth of the white population so greatly that by the early eighteenth century enslaved blacks outnumbered free whites in the colony; by the time of the writing of the 1740 Slave Code, the black population was nearly double that of the white population. During this same period, colonial customs changed the status of the enslaved black laborers from a condition similar to medieval serfdom to that of hereditary chattel slavery.

Unsurprisingly, this oppression of the majority by the minority resulted in fear among white South Carolinians that the enslaved population would rise up against them. These fears were, to a certain degree, justified. Individual slaves sought freedom by running away from their masters, with some hoping to find liberty in nearby Spanish Florida after 1733. In September 1739, several dozen slaves escaped their plantations to mount the Stono Rebellion, the largest such uprising on the continent of North America. The chance crossing of the paths of colonial governor William Bull and the rebels soon led to the suppression of the uprising by the colonial militia, but the violence and early success of the revolt further terrified already nervous white colonists.

South Carolina’s legislature acted quickly in the wake of the Stono Rebellion. Two months later, a special committee began leading a discussion of possible efforts to prevent another similar revolt. In the spring of 1740, legislation aimed at ensuring the safety of the colony’s white residents—at the expense of the limited freedoms of its black population—began to flow from the General Assembly. Chief among these efforts was a new slave code that built upon the provisions of the colony’s 1712 slave code. The new slave code sought to eliminate the freedoms that had allowed the Stono rebels to plot their revolt while also preventing slave owners from engaging in gross abuse by limiting legal work hours, requiring the provision of adequate food and shelter, and punishing obvious abuse.

Author Biography

The writing of the Slave Code of 1740 was undertaken by the leading colonial political authorities, Royal Governor William Bull, and the General Assembly. A second-generation South Carolinian, Bull had himself sporadically served in the colonial assembly since first winning election in 1706 while still in his early twenties. He was considered something of an expert on American Indian affairs, but had acted as colonial governor only since 1737. From the beginning, his term was plagued with difficulties. Along with the constant specter of slave revolts fire, disease, and regional tensions threatened South Carolina’s safety during the late 1730s. Bull’s handling of the Stono Rebellion had been effective, but not until after the rebels had killed a handful of white colonists and briefly terrorized the countryside. As governor, Bull was charged with maintaining order in the colony; in that respect, he had clearly failed. Assuring his royal overseers in England that measures had been taken to prevent another such rebellion was surely among his main concerns, as the letter he wrote to the authorities concerning the matter emphasized that the rebellion was ended and any rebels-at-large were being rapidly dealt with. Discouraging another incident of the type from happening again followed naturally on this course of action.

South Carolina’s General Assembly shared this goal. Created during South Carolina’s period as a proprietary colony, the assembly handled internal legislative duties and was composed of elected members. Qualifications for election were economically stringent, however, with members required to hold more than five hundred acres of land along with at least ten slaves; legislators also had to be part of the Anglican Church. The franchise itself was limited to white, Christian men who owned a substantial amount of property. The colonial elite thus made up the legislative body. The interests of this group as a class favored the institution of slavery, on which their agricultural success and personal financial gain largely rested. Yet the members also acknowledged that the continuation of slavery in an atmosphere less conducive to rebellion carried some restrictions on the actions of slaveholders. They thus were willing to write laws that had the potential to directly limit some actions and potentially cost themselves and others of their social class significant sums of money in order to ensure the security of the colony as a whole.

Document Analysis

Written in the wake of the Stono Rebellion, South Carolina’s slave code of 1740 reflected the concerns that the ruling white slaveholding elite held about the prospect of another uprising. The slave code made laws affecting both slaves and slave owners, but was written for a white colonial audience; this is obvious both from the overall tone of the piece and from a provision barring white slave owners from teaching their slaves to read and write, ensuring that no enslaved person could read the code. Thus the slave code informs slave owners of the rules binding the institution, and, often, of the punishments for various infractions. The 1740 slave code built upon the laws set out in earlier codes, most recently in 1712. Legislators had been debating revisions for several months. The Stono Rebellion encouraged them to speed the process considerably. The finalized code therefore reflected existing colonial practices while responding directly to the perceived causes of the recent uprising.

This goal is clear from the opening language of the document, which announces itself an “act for the better ordering and governing Negroes and other slaves” in South Carolina. Although the slave code was addressed to white slave owners and did contain statutes that applied solely to them, the main purpose of the document was to manage the behavior of enslaved people; the actions of the owners, who are not referenced in this title, were affected only as they were likely to affect the work of the colony’s slaves. The introduction to the slave code then goes on to identify the groups typically considered slaves in the colony, and declares that it is the right of the colony to make laws ensuring that “the slave may be kept in due subjection and obedience” even as slaveholders must be “restrained from exercising too great rigour and cruelty.” Finally, the preamble states a third goal: preserving “public peace and order,” a direct nod to the breakdown of peace that took place during the Stono Rebellion. The remainder of the document serves to provide specific statutes that meet at least one of these three purposes.

The first statute set forth in the slave code formally affirms the custom of chattel slavery, or the holding of enslaved persons and their descendents outright as property. Early in its history, South Carolina had practiced freehold slavery, a variation of the institution that tied enslaved persons to the land rather than to a specific owner. Freehold slavery granted enslaved persons a slightly higher status, as slaveholders owned only a given slave’s labor rather than the person himself. Over time, however, the practice of chattel slavery took the place of freehold slavery, and in 1740 the slave code affirmed that all presently enslaved people were legally considered “absolute slaves” who were “chattels personal” of their owners in perpetuity. This laid the groundwork not only for the legality of the restrictive statues that followed but also for the system of slavery that persisted in South Carolina until the Civil War.

At least in theory, however, people taken as slaves who were in fact free had a legal recourse to avoid being pulled into chattel slavery. The slave code established a procedure through which people asserting themselves as free could have their day in court. However, this system was not one conducive to even a truly free person seeking legal liberty. According to the slave code, a wrongfully enslaved person first had to find a separate “guardian” to apply for freedom on his or her behalf. This guardian then had the right to file a legal claim against the person who had allegedly taken the enslaved person wrongfully into service. The slave code placed the burden of proof with the plaintiff, assuming always that any African or American Indian, other than those native peoples “in amity” with the colonial government, were in fact rightfully slaves. If the court found in favor of the plaintiff, the enslaved person was free and granted a financial award for damages; no other repercussions were placed upon the transgressor. If the court found in favor of the defendant, however, the enslaved claimant legally suffered any form of physical punishment that the court deemed fit, short of removing a limb or causing death.

In practice, these restrictions made it extremely difficult for a wrongfully enslaved person to seek justice. The enslaved person could not file his or her own claim with the courts, and so was immediately faced with the challenge of finding someone else willing to undertake the case. Proving one’s own freedom in the face of the assumption of slavery was not an easy chore, especially in a time when formal record-keeping was minimal and support for slavery was high; an approximate modern equivalent would be the announcement that all persons accused of a crime were presumed guilty until proven otherwise. The threat of extreme physical violence if the court found against a claimant surely was intended as a deterrent against any but the very strongest of cases. Thus a free person seized as a slave was likely to remain a slave.

The authors of the slave code nevertheless wanted to protect enslaved Africans from the types of gross abuses that they believed had encouraged the outbreak of the Stono Rebellion. Although laws fining white colonists for murdering slaves already existed in South Carolina thanks to the provisions of the 1712 slave code, the revisions enacted in 1740 made them much more stringent. Section VI of the slave code levied a fine of forty shillings on any person who, without good cause, injured—but did not kill—an enslaved person engaged in his or her duties or performing any other legal action. The penalty for injuring the slave so greatly that he or she was rendered unable to perform his or her regular work placed an additional burden of fifteen shillings per lost work day on the offender along with the actual costs of the medical care for the injured party. Assuming the maximum amount of damages was equal to or less than twenty pounds—a substantial sum in a time when the average selling price for an enslaved person in nearby Virginia ranged from twenty-eight to thirty-five pounds—any justice of the peace could hear the matter and order the offender to jail in the event that he could not pay. Thus the slave code suggests that in the minds of its authors the damage done to injured slaves was not punishable on the grounds of either moral concerns or civil liberty violations, but rather on economic ones; the value of slaves purely as laborers rather than humans is apparent in the decision to imprison only those offenders who could not provide sufficient monetary recompense not to the actual injured person, but to the slaveholder whose plantation went partially untended due to the lack of a worker.

The wording of the statute left much interpretation available to the courts, which determined, for example, whether the offending party had suitable cause for inflicting injury. The law also left colonists free to engage in violence against enslaved persons who were not “employed in the lawful business or service” of their owners, freeing any white colonist of legal blame for physically punishing a slave who broke any of the other numerous statutes limiting their behavior as laid out in the slave code.

In stark contrast, enslaved persons who engaged in violence against white owners or colonists faced much graver consequences than a simple fine or even the threat of jail time. From the outset, the bar of offending behavior was set lower and the level of required punishment much higher. While a person engaging in violence against an African slave had to cause enough damage that the victim was considered “beaten, bruised, maimed or disabled,” a slave needed only to “strike any white person” to draw the ire of the slave code upon him or herself. Offenders were granted the right to a trial, although proving one’s own innocence would have been severely hampered by the social and legal restrictions of the day; other portions of the code, for example, required a trial that could result in the death penalty to take place within three days of the slave’s entry into custody. Upon conviction, first- and second-time offenders were subject to any form of punishment deemed appropriate by the courts short of the removal of a limb or execution. Third-time offenders, however, were executed. This legal imbalance meant that a slave who merely slapped a white overseer could potentially face death as a result.

The repercussions for a slave who managed to “grievously wound, maim or bruise any white person” were even more severe. Even first-time offenders faced the death penalty for their actions. Thus, a white person who beat a black slave so severely that the injured party was unable to work faced only a financial punishment, while a slave who inflicted a bruise on a white colonist faced certain death. The higher colonial value of white safety and security is apparent in such a divide.

Exceptions to the law existed, but essentially served to protect white slaveholders rather than black slaves. Slaves were exempted from punishment if the violence in question was undertaken on the order of the slaveholder or master, or to protect that person from violence. In such an instance, the white colonist ordering or benefiting from the attack was liable under the law rather than the slave. As the laws affecting white colonists were not as harsh as those affecting African slaves, the penalties for the initiator of the attack may be assumed to be less than those than the slave would have suffered if he had undertaken the action of his own accord—another clear breach of the concept of equality under the law. Yet the exception allowed white slaveholders to rely on their slaves to take physical risks to protect their owners’ safety. Worth noting, too, is that the slave code grants no exemptions for slaves who undertake violence in their own self-defense. Thus, a slave who fought back an attack from a while colonist faced the same legal repercussions as one who engaged in an entirely unprovoked attack.

The next section of the slave code establishes South Carolinian law regarding runaway slaves. Earlier legislation had sought to deter slaves from running away and to punish white colonists who encouraged slaves to desert their posts, presumably to illegally work for these new masters. But the events of the 1730s encouraged the act of running away more so than in the past. Until 1733, South Carolina shared a border with Spanish Florida because the colony of Georgia did not yet divide the two. Even after Georgia was established as a colony, only a small strip of land separated South Carolina from Spanish Florida, which from 1734 promised liberty to any fugitive slaves who entered the territory. Rumors of successful runaway attempts presumably attracted slaves to try to win liberty for themselves in that way, and numerous slaves tried to escape do Spanish Florida during that time. Additionally, Florida was the probable destination of the Stono rebels, making tight provisions against running away essential to the slave code’s overall goal of enhancing the safety and security of the white slave-holding populace.

The post-Stono slave code thus enacted several measures to deter potential runaways. The law formally enabled “every person in the Province” to act as a fugitive slave catcher and required that person to return the runaway to his or her owner or overseer. If the owner was not known and could not be readily discovered, the slave was instead sent to Charleston. There, he or she—although the majority of runaways were men—was held at a workhouse. The warden was then required to regularly publish a description of all runaway slaves held so that owners or overseers had the opportunity to locate their missing property. These advertisements appeared regularly in the colonial newspaper, and serve as one of the best primary sources for modern historians to learn about the act of running away during this period. Upon identifying the fugitive, the owner paid a reward of twenty shillings to reclaim the runaway. Yet being held in the workhouse was no guarantee that a slave dedicated to winning his freedom would not run away again. This prospect must have been very real, for the law requires the warden to compensate the slaveholder for either the value of the slave or the costs entailed by his flight should a slave manage to escape again and elude capture for at least three months.

Among the restrictions placed by the slave code on slave owners were those affecting working days and hours. Section XXII, for example, barred slave owners from requiring enslaved persons to work on Sundays; an exception was granted for “works of absolute necessity and the necessary operations of the family,” meaning that the law limited ongoing agricultural labor as opposed to work done by domestic slaves who performed duties such as meal preparation. A later section barred slave owners from requiring slaves to work in excess of fifteen hours in any given day during the agricultural season and fourteen hours per day during the off season. These strictures were made to prevent the gross abuse of slaves by requiring them to work around the clock or without a sufficient rest period. The authors of the slave code hoped that such restrictions would provide living conditions that were less likely to incite enslaved persons from running away or rebelling against their masters. To encourage compliance, the code levied fines on slave owners who required their slaves to work in violation of these rules.

Some aspects of the slave code sought to limit the abilities of enslaved persons to travel, assemble, or even engage in simple cultural practices; these restrictions stemmed largely from the perceived beginnings of the Stono Rebellion. Section XXXVI of the slave code, for example, bars slaves from traveling on their own, particularly during times when they were unlikely to be working—Saturday nights, Sundays, and holidays. The authors of the slave code believed that this freedom of movement allowed enslaved persons to meet and plan uprisings or other measures that could threaten the stability of the colony. The statute also outlaws the keeping of weapons—a fairly obvious measure to deter armed rebellion—along with the playing of drums or other instruments that “may call together or give sign” of an impending uprising. The Stono rebels had marched to the beat of drums, creating a distinct connection between the prospect of slave rebellion and that instrument in the colonial mind. The punishment for such an infraction once again reflected the divisions established throughout the code: enslaved Africans suffered physical harm, while white colonists faced economic penalties.

Other sections of the code mandated various measures for both slave and slaveholder. Travel by enslaved persons, though generally barred, was allowed if the traveler carried a standardized pass or ticket granting permission from the owner. To prevent slaves from writing their own tickets or communicating secretly, they were forbidden to learn to read or write. Strictures also required slaveholders to provide a basic standard of living for their slaves, including providing adequate shelter, food, and clothing. These diverse measures all served to meet the same purpose: keeping slaves well under the thumb of their masters and unwilling or unable to rise up against the institution of slavery as individuals or in a mass rebellion.

Essential Themes

The slave code instituted by South Carolina in 1740 influenced not only that colony and, later, state, but also other slave-holding colonies and states in the nascent United States in a variety of ways. The concept of chattel slavery did not initiate in South Carolina—the colony itself drew on the practices of other English slaveholding territories such as Barbados—but its formalization in the colony was an important step in the spread of the institution throughout the southeastern United States. The influence of the system of chattel slavery around the nation proved immense. Granting one person the legal right to entirely own another person became a moral issue that drove the nineteenth-century abolition movement and, eventually, set the stage for the American Civil War. On a broader scale, the laws set forth in the slave code were closely followed by the colony of Georgia, which was first formed from land taken from Carolina during the 1730s. Although slavery was initially barred in Georgia, the colony allowed the institution after 1750. The practices of and attitudes about slavery in Georgia largely came to mirror those of its geographic parent.

The attitudes of South Carolinians towards slaves are apparent in the statutes of the slave code. In addition to deeming enslaved persons property and stripping them of the few civil liberties that they had retained to that point, the slave code also focused heavily on slaves as an economic resource, in sharp opposition to the definition of white colonists as humans whose safety did not carry a readily a defined price. White colonists who injured slaves paid the costs associated with their lost economic value or reduced labor; slaves who injured white colonists paid with their lives. The acceptance of enslaved Africans as economic instruments is evident in these distinctions, and indeed this view of slaves endured in South Carolina. Although colonists in places such as Virginia saw the institution of slavery as a problematic economic necessity that would eventually end in the United States, South Carolinians saw no such disconnect. Local support for slavery was so great in South Carolina that the colony demanded concessions on the issue from Northern politicians as a condition for its participation in the American Revolution just thirty-five years after the writing of the slave code. The value of slaves as economic resources later contributed to South Carolina’s willingness to secede from the United States; even after the Civil War ended, former slaves became sharecroppers with civil rights that were restricted through state law, a continuance of the government-sponsored classification of black Americans as lower human beings suitable only for labor.

  • Bull, Kinloch. “William Bull.” American National Biography. Oxford UP. n.d. Web. 17 May 2012.
  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
  • “Transcription of 1740 Slave Code.” Teaching American History in South Carolina. Teaching American History in South Carolina Project, 2009. Web. 7 May 2012
  • Tyer, Charlie B. and Richard D. Young. “The South Carolina Legislature.” The South Carolina Governance Project. Center for Governmental Services, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina. n.d. Web. 17 May 2012
  • Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Norton, 1974. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print.
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles. Cry Liberty: The Great Stono River Slave Rebellion of 1739. New York: OUP, 2010. Print.
  • Reiss, Oscar. Blacks in Colonial America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997. Print.
  • Smith, Mark M. Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2005. Print.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. New York: Simon, 1997. Print.
  • Wood, Betty. Slavery in Colonial America: 1619–1776. Lanham, MD: Rowman, 2005. Print.

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