Dr. Philip J. Schwarz, of Virginia Commonwealth University and Director of the Stratford Hall Seminar on Slavery lectured on slave laws of Virginia. He asked the seminarians to examine the "traps" and subtle nuances of each. The answers are a combination of seminarian responses and Phil's comments. This page is linked to an outline of the lecture that gives the text of each law.
Q. Why did white Virginians and others bother with laws of slavery? Slavery was about domination. Why was it necessary to codify the institution?
A. English rule of law to be applied to the situation.
Gave justification to practice
Protection for their own property.
Idea of who could be enslaved changed and needed to be codified.
Between 1619-1662 no clear laws about slavery.
No laws makes for an unstable society. Rational laws for an irrational institution. Cannot make a human being into a thing.
Laws were complex because slavery was an unpredictable and complicated relationship that lawmakers tried to control and make predictable
Q. Law of 1662 determined that the child of a woman enslaved shall also be enslaved. Why establish this law?
A. Historically the father determined status
of child. Free white men as fathers caused a problem.
Economics gave a better return if mother determined status. Each new child increased the capital of the owner.
Law also provided for a fine if a white fathered child with a slave, but slaves could not testify in cases involving white people, so laws were symbolic.
Q. Law Concerning Conversion, 1667 established that baptism would not alter bondage. Why establish this law?
A. Protected capital investment
Prior to that time, some slaves were Christians when they arrived in New World. By tradition,
Christians did not enslave Christians.
Q. Laws of Control (1669) declared any unintended killing of a slave accidental. Why establish this law?
A. Makes any accidental killing of
slaves beyond prosecution by definition since no man would "destroy his own
If an owner kills a slave of another owner, a settlement could be made. Phil has never seen a legal action taken by one owner against another for that action.
Q. Oyer and Terminer Court, 1692 .
A. (Year of Salem Witch trials which
were under commission of Oyer (hear) and terminer (determine/termination)).
If slaves were condemned to execution, owner could appeal on fact. Allows for recourse that could lead to pardons for slave and protection of owners' property.
Q. "Definition" laws. Why establish these laws?
A. Who could be made a slave. Combined white assumptions: white superiority, African inferiority; slavery justified and therefore enforceable and children born of one African and one European parent are "spurious issue."
Q. Property Laws. Why establish these laws?
A. No basis in English common law for laws on slaves, so House of
Burgesses sought to codify slaves as property. By the eighteenth century
slaves were declared personal property that could be inherited, attached,
sold, or disposed of.
All colonial laws were supposed to be approved by King and Council. Unless laws affected Crown, they were approved as a matter of course.
Case Study Trial of Accomac County, 1775. Why would Luther Martin defend?
A. Preserved formal ritual of law.
Trying a slave involves some recognition of humanity; contradiction of definition as property.
Needed to contradict themselves in order to the keep system going.
Customary law was sometimes employed to let masters settle issue outside of courts.
Luther Martin delayed the case until it was dropped. Who knows why?
Case Study from 1775.
Took place after Lord Dunmore said any slave who defended the crown would
be free. Was tried as a capital crime. Little danger he would
be executed for theft, but he was convicted and given benefit of
clergy . One time a slave can plead benefit of clergy and be pardoned.
Usually branded to mark. Pre-Revolution fervor of colonists made the traditional
recitation of "God save the King," by the pardoned a problem.
Shouted "God Damn the king and the Governor too!" Public thought this was
endearing not contempt. It was kept out of the court record but
appeared in the newspapers.