The Slave Codes

ShacklesAt the dawn of the 19th Century, the young United States faced a dangerous problem. A little over nine hundred miles to the south, a bloody slave revolt was underway in Haiti, and nearly 18% of Americans were slaves. In some states, from a third to nearly a half of the population were slaves. Slave revolts weren’t unknown in the US – New York City had seen one in 1712, and another was discovered in 1741 – which made the fear of a Haitian style revolt a real one.

From the safety of the 21st Century, it’s easy to sympathize with the slaves and wish they had tried it. We tend not to realize that, with the exception of the New York Conspiracy of 1741, the victims during revolts tended to be indiscriminate. For a long time all whites, regardless of their support or opposition of slavery, feared an uprising.

The response was laws regulating slaves, known as the Slave Codes. New York adopted some following the 1712 revolt, as had other colonies, and later, states. In each case the aim was to prevent insurrection, and every incident, such as Nat Turner’s Rebellion, saw further regulation.

It’s easy, not considering the era, to chalk up these laws to racism and miss it was the fear of insurrection that drove these and other laws. A check of the 1860 Georgia Code finds “In all cases, the killing or maiming of a slave or person of color, or Indian in amity with the Confederate States, or any other unlawful violent assault upon the person, without sufficient provocation, shall be put on the same footing of criminality as the killing, or maiming, or assaulting a white person.” We also find that slaves were allowed self defense. What racism was present was no more so than in other states, including Northern ones at the time. What is clear is how greatly Georgia feared an insurrection. Not only were there laws against inciting insurrection, but also laws heavily punishing unprovoked attacks of slaves on whites, providing weapons to slaves, and in teaching slaves to read (lest they read material that could incite rebellion). Georgia, as with other slave states, rode the tiger and knew it.

The end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment brought an end to slavery, but not to the Slave Codes. The fear of insurrection, now by freed slaves, remained. Even Lincoln feared such an insurrection, and supported the idea of setting up colonies similar to Liberia for former slaves. So it was that the Slave Codes became the Black Codes, and many of the same restrictions applied to slaves were applied to free blacks. Since the Slave Codes had also placed regulations on free blacks, this was not all that great a leap.

States could pull this off because of the question of whether freed slaves were US citizens. If freed slaves were, they enjoyed the protection of rights under the US Constitution. If not, states could pretty much do what they pleased – which is exactly what the states did.

To correct this, the 14th Amendment was introduced and ratified, which made former slaves US citizens and nullified some of the worst of the Black Codes. What remained would become modified and become known as the Jim Crow laws. Yes, the old Black Codes were worse than the hated Jim Crow laws.

For instance, until passage of the 14th Amendment, freed slaves could not legally own weapons. While some of this was the fear of insurrection, another was that it’s hard to intimidate an armed man. In some places groups like the KKK become active after the sheriffs went around confiscating black owned weapons, and –

Yes, weapons confiscation happened under the Black Codes. Under the old Slave Codes in 1860 Georgia, a slave couldn’t possess a firearm unless it was provided by his owner and unless a white male sixteen or older was with the slave. Firearm ownership by slaves was illegal. Even after the Civil War, at least one state required blacks to have permission from local law enforcement in order to own firearms. And yes, this was all driven by continued fear of insurrection, the fear that led Lincoln to look to settling freed slaves in their own colonies, the same fear that led the British to march on Lexington and Concord intent on seizing colonial arms.

It’s something to think during calls to remove firearms from the hands of citizens. Gun control proposals have always born an uncomfortable resemblance to weapons restrictions in the Slave Codes. Firearm confiscation? Happened under the Black Codes. Restricting firearm ownership? Slave and Black Codes. Restricting access to firearms? Slave and Black Codes. All the same.

Of course, the fear today is violent crime, not insurrection. Yet the fear for personal safety that came from failure to trust another because of the color of their skin is today a failure to trust any American. The irony that the violent acts that drive these calls happen in weapons free zones is missed by gun control advocates, just as the violent acts against freed slaves happened in a weapons free environment is lost on them as well. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the political party that wrote the Slave Codes tends to be the most vocal in calling for the same to be applied to all Americans.

There is one key difference: States knew that, if former slaves were US citizens, the post-Civil War Black Codes would be unconstitutional. The 14th Amendment changed that. Today, gun control advocates don’t seem to worry about the constitution. Not quite a century ago they would have pushed for an amendment to ban private ownership of firearms. In our era they don’t seem willing to do even that. What that says about us in the 21st Century speaks volumes, just as the Slave Codes speak volumes about America in another time.