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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

Laws Regulating Slavery and Free Blacks

The collection contains a number of documents that provide insight into the kinds of laws that governed slaves and slave holding. A good way to begin exploring these laws is by examining the “Slave Code for the District of Columbia.” Although this written collection of the laws related to slavery in the District was not formally published until 1862 (see the special presentation entitled Slave Code for the District of Columbia for more background), the laws gathered there include the Maryland laws that applied prior to the formation of the district, as well as later laws passed specifically for the District. The manuscript version, which is believed to have been a “practice book” created by a law firm, also contains findings from Supreme Court cases related to slavery. The code also presents laws related to free blacks.

A section of the code such as the following makes real the fact that slaves were regarded as property rather than as people in a way that a mere statement of that fact might not. This section indicated that a person who killed a fugitive slave in an attempt to recapture him/her would not be prosecuted for a crime, but would have to reimburse the slave owner for the slave’s value.

Sec. 90. If any slave shall happen to be slain for refusing to surrender him or herself, contrary to law, or in unlawful resisting any officer, or other person, who shall apprehend or endeavor to apprehend such slave or slaves, and such officer, or other person, so killing such slave as aforesaid making resistance, shall be, and he is by this act, indemnified from any prosecution for such killing aforesaid; and that in every such case such slave or slaves shall be valued by two reputable persons, not being of kin to the master or owner of such slave, upon oath to be administered unto them, and to be appointed by the then nearest magistrate, "well and truly to value what such slave was worth, to the best of their knowledge, without favor or partiality," and that the whole value of such slave or slaves shall be certified by such persons to such magistrate, and that the same shall be paid to the ower or owners of such slave or slaves, or to his, her or their order, by the treasurer of the respective shore of this province on which the same death happened, upon a certificate from the said magistrate of the death and value of such slave or slaves, out of the public stock of this province in the hands of such treasurer, without fee or reward.

(Page 28, “The Slavery Code of the District of Columbia,” transcribed version)

Work with a partner to examine closely a limited number of sections of the code, creating a poster that illustrates the meaning of the sections you studied. Collect information from the posters created by classmates.


  • What rights did slaves have according to the slavery code?
  • What rights and responsibilities did slave owners have?
  • What restrictions were placed on free blacks?
  • Based on your analysis of the slavery code, what was the intent of the laws that made up the slavery code? What beliefs are implicit in the laws?

Other documents can provide insight into how legislators sought to use the law to regulate free blacks. A South Carolina law allowed free blacks who were on ships that came into American ports to be put into jail while the ship remained in port; the captain of the ship had to pay the cost of the confinement; if he did not do so, he could be imprisoned and the free black seaman sold as a slave. The following quotation indicates the general tenor of the court’s opinion in striking down the law:

On the unconstitutionality of the law under which this man is confined, it is not too much to say that it will not bear argument; and I feel myself sanctioned in using this strong language, from considering the course of reasoning by which it has been defended. Neither of the gentlemen has attempted to prove that the power therein assumed by the state, can be exercised without clashing with the general powers of the United States to regulate commerce: but they have both strenuously contended, that ex necessitate it was a power which the state must and would exercise, and indeed Mr. Holmes concluded his argument with the declaration that if a dissolution of the union must be the alternative he was ready to meet it. Nor did the argument of Col. Hunt deviate at all from the same course. Giving it in the language of his own summary, it was this: South-Carolina was a sovereign state when she adopted the constitution--a sovereign state cannot surrender a right of vital importance--South-Carolina therefore either did not surrender this right, or still possesses the power to resume it--and whether it is necessary, or when it is necessary to resume it, she is herself the sovereign judge.

(Page 5, “The Opinion of the Hon. William Johnson”)


Interestingly, the attorney for the sheriff, Benjamin Faneuil Hunt, published his argument in the case after the judge’s decision was published, giving as his reason for publication the following:

But to understand the decission and do simple justice to the unsuccessful advocate, the case should be reported, or his arguments stated with at least as much plausibility as they were originally presented at the hearing; and, as in this instance, the honourable Judge, has thought proper to link my humble reputation with his own high name, by frequently naming me, I will venture to withdraw myself as far as possible form the effect of the comparison or rather contrast which so intimate a union with a superior will elicit, and by appearing alone before the public at least avoid the disadvantage. In short, I think my argument, by itself, will look much better than when its mangled parts are scattered through the opinion of the learned Judge: and the repeated requests to publish my argument have induced me to sumbit it to my fellow-citizens. My case was made for me I am responsible only for my argument.

(Pages 1 and 2, “”)

Compare the two documents from which the quotes above were taken:

Another example of a law regulating the lives of free blacks can be discovered in "Report of the Arguments of Counsel, in the Case of Prudence Crandall," who was accused of breaking a Connecticut law that forbade establishing a school that would educate free blacks who did not live in the state where the school was located. As a final example of ways in which law-makers attempted to control the lives of black Americans, consider "A Brief History of an Attempt During the Last Session of the Legislature, in 1841," which recounts the Mississippi legislature’s effort to void the will of a slaveholder who wanted his slaves to be sent to Liberia and his property sold to benefit them.

  • What were the purposes of the laws related to the behavior of free blacks?
  • What beliefs were implicit in these laws?