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Virginia's code lagged far behind South Carolina's of 1696 and the earlier British island codes" (Vaughn 306).
These early slave codes also served to further differentiate the appropriate legal rights that were afforded white indentured servants compared to their enslaved African counterparts. In this regard, Leon Higgenbotham adds that "at the same time the codes were emphatic in denying slaves any of the privileges or rights that had accrued to white indentured servants in this same period" (Higgenbotham 38). In reality, though, there had been some earlier attempts to formalize the legal status of the growing slave population. Although other colonies would follow Virginia's lead in the early 18th Century, they also seized on these early efforts to codify slavery into law as well. In this regard, Davies reports that in 1662, "Virginia elaborated on the statute, making slavery a condition passed on to children from their mothers. Five years later, in 1667, the colony clarified further: baptism into Christianity would not free a slave. A similar pattern occurred in other colonies" (Higgenbotham 230). These efforts to formally legalize an otherwise inhumane institution were more than just an exercise in economic development they were rather a coordinated effort by whites to define the entire African "race" as being so completely inferior and animal-like as to not deserve the same basic considerations that were afforded their white indentured counterparts irrespective of any realities to the contrary. As Russell Hittinger (1999) points out "the slave codes make sense only on the supposition that the slave is not a man, but a brute, with a brute's propensities, a brute's nature, and a brute's destiny" (Hittinger 67).
In his classic work American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund S. Morgan dated the transformation of Virginia and Maryland to economies based of slave labor to the rebellion led by Bacon's Rebellion in 1675-76. Up to that time, the labor that produced Virginia's tobacco mostly came from white indentured servants, who were mostly young, unmarried males who sold their labor for four or five-year contracts (indentures) to pay for their passage to the New World. Those who survived hoped to become small farmers and planters, but were often frustrated in their goals by the oligarchy allied to Governor William Berkeley. Led by the rebellious young gentleman, Nathaniel Bacon, they overthrew the governor, burned the capital at Williamsburg and then wrote a new constitution that expanded landholding and voting rights for poor white men. Berkeley was well-aware of this problem and attempted to diversify the economy away from dependence on a single export crop, even by reducing or ceasing the eliminating of tobacco, but all such attempts failed (Billings 195). In the wake of Bacon's Rebellion, the rulers of Virginia decided to solve "the problem of the poor" by importing more African slaves, who would not be armed and have far more difficulty running away than white servants (Morgan 385). This new system was already reflected in the Virginia Black Code of 1681, which was much stricter and more comprehensive than its predecessors, and combined slaves, free blacks, Indians and mixed-race persons as part of the lowest caste, to which even the poorest white person was legally superior.
From the mid- to the end of the 17th Century on, then, there appears to have been concerted efforts to formalize the respective rights that distinguished whites from blacks in the New World. As Higginbotham points out "despite some limitations on their rights, white servants were never the victims of any legislative plan to deprive them of such basic options as the right to sue one's masters for ill treatment or for one's freedom and white servants were never precluded from owning property" (Higginbotham 38). In addition, this historian argues that the historical record does not fully reflect the legal rationale in support of this distinction aside from the growing racial divisiveness that was emerging during this period in American history (Higginbotham 38). These legal fine points and niceties, though, were likely lost on the growing population of now legally bound African slaves in America who were building the Old South's economy at the end of a whip. As a legal demarcation, then, Breen and Innes as well as others have cited the slave codes of 1705 as being the defining point in American history. In his analysis of the impact of the slave codes on the contemporary mindset of whites,
While the suffering Africans experienced during their sea passage was horrific and the depredations they were subjected to worked a heavy toll, these were short-termed miseries compared to the long-term servitude the survivors found upon their arrival. During the early part of the 17th Century, though, some blacks managed to gain their freedom and even became slave-owners themselves. In Virginia and Maryland in the 17th Century, white indentured servants were the main source of labor, producing the tobacco that was the chief export of these colonies. At the time, slaves were still a small minority of the population and slavery as an institution was still flexible and had not yet been as rigidly codified as it was in the Black Codes of 1681 and 1705. In the early and middle decades of the 17th Century, though, at least some slaves were treated like indentured servants and freed after their terms expired, and at least some were able to acquire property. This was never the case in the rice-producing colonies of Georgia and South Carolina, where white servants had never been an important part of the labor force and the slavery regime was a harsh as that of the West Indies and Brazil. Once slavery became thoroughly codified and institutionalized, the racial caste system and all the attitudes associated with it were also firmly in place. The vast majority of blacks, who were treated as so much chattel to be bought and sold at the owners' whim, became inextricably interwoven in the economy of the South in ways that contributed to the Civil War and racial divisiveness in the United States well into the 21st Century. Indeed, it may be several more generations before the ugly face of racism, created in large part by the enslavement of millions of African-Americans for hundreds of years, will be completely erased from the American consciousness.
Black's Law Dictionary. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1991.
Billings, Warren M. Sir William Berkeley and the Forging of Colonial Virginia.
Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
Breen, T.H. And S. Innes. Myne Owne Ground: Race and Freedom on Virginia's
Shore, 1640-1676. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Higginbotham, a. Leon Jr. In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period. Oxford, England:
Oxford University Press, 1980.
Hittinger, Russell. "A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public
Life 67, August 1999.
Jacobs, S.M. 2008. "Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora."
Journal of African-American History 93(4); 568-570.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.
NY: Norton, 2003.
Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Mustakeem, Sowande. 2008. "I Never Have Such a Sickly Ship Before': Diet, Disease, and Mortality in 18th-Century Atlantic Slaving…[continue]
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