Thursday, December 3, 2009

Slave Law & the 13th Amendment

December 6 marks exactly 144 years since the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. This shameful chapter of American history began in pre-colonial days, and resulted in the development of a surprisingly detailed body of law concerning the rights of slaves, the penal code as it applied to slaves, and the separate “slave court” systems which developed in many U.S. states. Although the contents of the relevant legal treatises and court opinions are appallingly inhumane to a modern reader, they do cast an interesting perspective on a portion of legal practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Each slave-holding state (and, previously, colony) maintained its own slave code, which defined the status of slaves, the powers of slave owners, and related legal issues (such as handling claims of emancipation or punishing crimes committed by/against slaves). For example, browse a hand-written copy of the District of Columbia’s 1860 slave code at the Library of Congress’s digital collection Slaves and the Courts (a typeset edition from 1862 is also available to browse).

Lawyers of the day were assisted by legal treatises, which like their modern counterparts provided an overview of the law related to a particular topic. Many slave law treatises and reprints can be found in the Goodson Law Library collection with a subject keyword search for “Slavery—Law and Legislation—United States”. A sample of titles, with links to electronic copies where available:
  • Goodell, The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice: Its Distinctive Features Shown by its Statutes, Judicial Decisions and Illustrative Facts, 1853 (HeinOnline & MoML)
  • Stroud, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America, 2d ed. 1856 (HeinOnline & MoML)
  • Bassett, Slavery in the State of North Carolina
    (For additional North Carolina-specific resources, check out the digitized titles from UNC’s North Carolina Experience collection).
The slave system also impacted courts. The above treatises, as well as Catteral’s Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro (KF4545 S5 J83 1998; reprint of the 1926 edition), provide digest access to many court cases involving slaves and emancipated slaves. Countless other docket records and court petitions remain in local archives. UNC-Greensboro recently launched the Digital Library of American Slavery, which summarizes thousands of county court and legislative petitions (1775-1867) from fifteen states and the District of Columbia. Users may search the records by name, subject, and/or keyword; although the full text of the petitions is not provided, the database includes source information to allow researchers to track down a copy through the appropriate archive.

For additional resources on the Thirteenth Amendment, check out the libraries’ catalog with a subject keyword search for “constitution and 13th”. Harper’s Weekly maintains a fascinating interactive timeline at, including the official proclamation from Secretary of State William H. Seward: "the amendment aforesaid has become valid to all intents and purposes as a part of the Constitution of the United States.". (For the serious legal researcher, this proclamation was officially printed at 13 Stat. 774-75 (1866).)