Slave Codes


What was the definition of a slave?

According to the Louisiana Civil Code, Article 35, a slave is defined as:

"... One who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labor. He can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to his master."

Though each state was governed by it's own slave code, generally the above was widely accepted.

Could slaves get married?

Slaves were property and therefore could not legally marry; a religious slave would usually perform a ceremony for the couple if the master consented, whereupon they would consider themselves married. This makes it very difficult when trying to research a slave's family tree.
Photo of a slave showing keeloid scarring from numerous lashes
A slave showing acute scarring from whipping (public domain)

Were children born slaves?

The majority of slaves within America at the time of the end of the Civil War in 1865 were descended from Africans transported to the United States for enslavement. It was accepted that any child born would follow the same condition as their mother; so if their mother was free but their father a slave, they would be born free. Should their mother be a slave however, they too would be born a slave - even if their master was their father.

Who would own the child if their parents belonged to separate masters?

The child would belong to the master that owned the mother. It was not unheard of for the master of a male slave to prevent his slave marrying a woman owned by someone else as it would not increase the amount of slaves that he had, but would increase the wealth of the woman's master. Many slaveholders would 'breed' their slaves to further their stock.

What would happen if a slave was badly beaten?

The law did not provide sufficient protection for slaves; it was said that their masters were able to punish their slaves as they saw fit, without being unusually cruel or causing death. Unfortunately, in most states, an African American could not bear witness against a white person as they were not citizens - even if two hundred slaves saw a white person commit murder. If a slave died during correction, however, this was considered an unfortunate accident and not punishable.

Did slaves have any free time?

After working up to more than fifteen hours in a day with no breaks, a slave usually had the option of hiring himself out on a Sunday, keeping any money he made for clothes or utensils. Sunday would be also be a day to fish or hunt if they had used up their meager rations, or to wash and mend clothes.

Could slaves read from the bible?

Slaves were not permitted to read; it was illegal to teach them for fear that it would 'ruin' them, or that it would enable them to spread inflammatory material inciting an uprising. A slave caught reading or writing would be furiously whipped.

What happened if slaves ran away?

If they made it to free soil, they were relatively safe until 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act was made. This made citizens personally accountable if they did not capture known escaped slaves. After 1850, escaped slaves were considered safe only when reaching Canada. However, most slaves would be captured, maimed or killed by the hounds, or deliberately choose to go back to their master after trying to survive in the wild.

Punishment varied depending upon the amount of times that a slave had escaped, and how cruel their master was; generally the punishment would range from many lashes for the first attempt, to branding, the slicing of a nose, or castration.


What punishment did white people incur if they killed a freeman or a slave?

If it was from reasonable correction, they would be pardoned. If it was from manslaughter or murder to intent, they were charged a fine.

What punishment did a freeman or slave receive if they killed a white person?

They would be put to death.

What punishment did a slave receive if they were found guilty of inciting rebellion?

Whether slave, white, or free, all would receive the death penalty.

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