Virginia Slave Codes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first laws recognizing and institutionalizing slavery in Virginia were passed by the General Assembly. Based on the laws regulating white indentured servitude, the laws created vast differences between the status of black and white forced laborers, instituting a de jure, rather than merely de facto, system of racial segregation.

Summary of Event

In March, 1661, the Virginia General Assembly declared that “all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” Enacted to alleviate confusion about the status of children with English fathers and African mothers, this law was the first in a series of laws recognizing perpetual slavery in Virginia and equating “freedom” with “white” and “enslaved” with “black.” This law is especially indicative of the hardening of race relations in mid-seventeenth century Virginia society, as status in the patriarchal society of England traditionally was inherited from the father. By reversing this legal concept, perpetuation of enslavement for blacks was ensured for their children, whether of black or white ancestry. [kw]Virginia Slave Codes (Mar., 1661-1705) [kw]Slave Codes, Virginia (Mar., 1661-1705) Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar., 1661-1705: Virginia Slave Codes[2070] Social issues and reform;Mar., 1661-1705: Virginia Slave Codes[2070] American Colonies;Mar., 1661-1705: Virginia Slave Codes[2070] Slavery;Virginia Slavery;Virginia slave codes Virginia;slavery

Despite the extent to which the 1661 law narrowed the options for defining Africans’ status, this act did not in itself establish slavery as permanent and inescapable. Africans had two available windows through which they could obtain freedom—conversion to Christianity and manumission (formal emancipation). In 1655, mulatto Elizabeth Key had brought a successful suit for her freedom, using as her main argument the fact that she had been baptized.

In 1667, a slave named Fernando failed in a similar suit when he contended that he ought to be freed because he was a Christian and had lived in England for several years. Not only did the court deny Fernando’s appeal, but also that same year the General Assembly took another step toward more clearly defining blacks’ status, by declaring “that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome.” Planters felt that if baptism led to freedom, they would be without any assurance that they could retain their slave property. The 1667 law built on the earlier one to define who would be a slave and was clarified in 1670 and again in 1682, when the Assembly declared that any non-Christian brought into the colony, either by land or by sea, would be a slave for life, even if he or she later converted.

In 1691, colonial leaders provided a negative incentive to masters wishing to free their slaves by declaring that anyone who set free any “negro or mulatto” would be required to pay the costs of transporting the freedmen out of the colony within six months. Although manumissions still occurred and some free blacks managed to remain in the colony, the primary status for African Americans in Virginia was that of chattel.

Although who was to be a slave in Virginia had now been defined, it had yet to be determined precisely what being a slave meant on a daily basis for Africans and their descendants. Between 1661 and 1705, nearly twenty separate laws were passed limiting, defining, and prescribing the rights, status, and treatment of blacks. In general, these laws were designed to protect planters’ slave property and to protect the order and stability of white society from an “alien and savage race.”

The greater the proportion of black slaves in the overall Virginia population, the more restrictive and oppressive the laws became. Whereas Africans were only 2 percent of the total population of Virginia in 1648, they were 15 percent in 1708. In certain coastal counties, such as York, the demographic picture was even more threatening. In 1663, blacks already made up 14 percent of York’s population; by 1701, they counted for 31 percent of the county’s inhabitants. In large part, the slave codes were motivated by the growth of the black population and whites’ fears of slave uprisings.

The piecemeal establishment of slavery in these separate laws culminated in 1705 in a comprehensive slave code in Virginia. This code reenacted and strengthened a number of earlier slave laws, added further restrictions and harsher punishments, and permanently drew the color line that placed blacks at the bottom of Virginia society. Law;Virginia slave codes Whites were prohibited from trading with, having sexual relations with, or marrying blacks. Blacks were forbidden to own Christian servants “except of their own complexion,” leave their home plantation without a pass, own a gun or other weapon, or resist whites in any way.

In Virginia society, in which private property was a basic legal tenet, a slave’s property was not protected: “[B]e it enacted . . . that all horses, cattle or hoggs marked of any negro . . . shall be forfeited to the use of the poore of the parish . . . seizable by the church warden thereof.” Neither was slave life or limb protected by the codes. It was legal both to kill slaves accidentally while punishing them and to dismember slaves guilty of running away as a means of dissuading other slaves from also trying to escape. Slaves were not allowed to assemble for prayer, for entertainment, or to bury their dead. They could not testify against white people in court and were not given the right of trial by jury. The only protection mandated in the slave code was that masters must provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter for their slaves, and that they “not give immoderate correction,” the latter provision being essentially meaningless, given that accidentally killing slaves while “correcting” them was officially sanctioned.

Many of these enactments lacked any means of enforcement, including the sole protection, and remained as almost dead letters in the statutes. Many of the harsher penalties for slave crimes—for example, the death penalty and maiming—were not carried out nearly as frequently as the laws suggest, because doing so would harm or destroy the master’s property. Laws prohibiting slaves from trading or hiring themselves out were disregarded almost routinely. The disadvantage for slaves of this lack of enforcement was that laws prohibiting cruel treatment or defining acceptable levels of correction often were ignored as well. Where abuse was noticeably blatant, action against white offenders was taken only reluctantly, and punishments were insignificant and rare. Generally, laws in the economic and political interest of the white planter elite were enforced and respected; laws that restrained planters’ pursuits were not.


To a large extent, the laws regulating and defining slavery in Virginia grew out of the early to mid-seventeenth century laws regulating indentured servitude. Indentured servitude Servants had also been prohibited from having sexual relations with or marrying their masters; indentured women who became pregnant through such liaisons were fined, made to serve extra time, and had their children bound out to labor. Like slaves, servants were punished for attempting to run away or for resisting their masters. Servants also were treated harshly and exploited by ruthless masters eager to get every penny’s worth of effort from their laborers.

Unlike African slaves, however, white indentured servants had legal rights and were protected by the laws and courts of the colony. This distinction is crucial in understanding the significance of the slave laws, which codified, not a difference between those forced to labor and those who were free, but rather a difference between a race inherently unworthy of being free and one whose members might be temporarily bound to service. White servants ultimately served out their time, became freemen and full citizens, acquired land and servants of their own, and became respected members of the community, regardless of their earlier status. Indentured servants had rights and opportunities, but African and African American slaves, by the turn of the eighteenth century, virtually had neither.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boskin, Joseph. Into Slavery: Racial Decisions in the Virginia Colony. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1976. Provides a brief account of the evolution of perpetual slavery and a representative selection of relevant primary documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catterall, Helen T., ed. Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro. 5 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1968. Comprehensive examination of court records related to American slavery and the experiences of African Americans in slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, the Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Recounts the events culminating in the legal recognition of slavery in all the British mainland colonies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. Examines the attitudes of British colonists toward Africans, especially concerning their religions and color. Characterizes the establishment of slavery as an “unthinking decision.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Detailed examination of how slavery developed in seventeenth and eighteenth century Virginia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Refutes previous historians’ views that racial slavery created a Golden Age in Virginia. Instead, Parent maintains the institution of racial slavery was a calculated move by the emerging planter class to consolidate its power, with invidious consequences for Virginia and American society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Philip J. Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Uses criminal trial records to examine slave resistance and whites’ efforts to control threatening slave behavior. Interprets the seventeenth century as a time of adjustment or negotiation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Robert B. A Legal History of Slavery in the United States. Potsdam, N.Y.: Northern Press, 1991. Illustrates the history of slavery in terms of its legislative and judicial background, from settlement through emancipation. Early chapters discuss the evolution of early slave codes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Betty. The Origins of American Slavery: The English Colonies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997. Explains the religious and economic rationale for the use of slave labor in English colonies. Chapter 4 focuses on slaves who worked the tobacco crops in the Chesapeake colonies.
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