Slavery in the Capital
Slavery in the United States was governed by an
extensive body of law developed from the 1660s to the 1860s. Every
slave state had its own slave code and body of court decisions.
All slave codes made slavery a permanent condition, inherited
through the mother, and defined slaves as property, usually in
the same terms as those applied to real estate. Slaves, being
property, could not own property or be a party to a contract.
Since marriage is a form of a contract, no slave marriage had
any legal standing. All codes also had sections regulating free
blacks, who were still subject to controls on their movements
and employment and were often required to leave the state after
When the District of Columbia was established in
1800, the laws of Maryland, including its slave laws, remained
in force. Additional laws on slavery and free blacks were then
made by the District, and by Southern standards its slave codes
were moderate. Slaves were permitted to hire out their services
and to live apart from their masters. Free blacks were permitted
to live in the city and to operate private schools. By 1860 the
District of Columbia was home to 11,131 free blacks and 3,185
The manuscript volume shown with the published
slave code is arranged by topic, listing relevant sections of
Maryland and District of Columbia laws as well as the applicable
court decisions. It is almost certainly a "practice book," produced
within a law firm for the use of its attorneys and clerks, who
could refer to it when drafting contracts and legal briefs. That
such a book exists indicates something of the volume and routine
character of legal work surrounding transactions in human property.
Slavery in the District of Columbia ended on April
16, 1862, when President Lincoln signed a law that provided for
compensation to slave owners. An Emancipation Claims Commission
hired a Baltimore slave trader to assess the value of each freed
slave, and awarded compensation for 2,989 slaves.
The printed slavery code exhibited here was published
on March 17, 1862, just one month before slavery in the District
ended and the laws became of historical interest only.