The Virginian Black Codes

Each U.S. state enacted slave codes defining the rights of slave owners as well as the status of slaves themselves. These laws gave masters absolute power over the enslaved individuals. The status of black people slowly changed in the seventeenth-century Virginia. The black slaves increasingly replaced indentured servants, who had hope for freedom. For a number of years, Virginia’s black indentured servants were serving without a minimum wage. In1705, the General Assembly of the state passed the Slave Act, thereby transforming indentured servants of African-American descent into slaves (“Virginia’s Slave Codes”). The Act condemned men, women, and even children to slavery despite the fact that they might be in a few steps away from freedom. According to Jonathan Bush, the Virginian burgesses developed the Slave Codes in order to regulate interactions between the slaves and citizens of the crown colony; the Codes also founded the slave legislation and consolidated Virginia’s slavery (392).

Although colonies had different ideas regarding the slave rights, there were some commonalities in the codes across the areas where slavery existed. Thousands of slaves were not allowed to own property since they were the legal property of their masters. Moreover, they were not allowed to gather and attend meetings without the presence of white men. Slaves who lived outside the plantation were subjected to special curfew (“Slave Codes”).

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman epigram – “As many slaves, so many enemies” precisely illustrates the political psychology of slavery as an institution (339). It is likely that the Virginian white authorities accepted the perception of the Roman Empire. It gives an explanation why they ordered to whip, expel, and sentence thousands of slaves to death, and expose other harsh and corporal punishments.

The Virginian Black Codes codified slavery and exempted white Christians from punishment for beating, torturing, and even killing innocent slaves. The Slave Act exalted white race, glorified Christianity, and considered other people including African Americans inferior. Being white was more important than belonging to the Christian faith. The main aspect is that Christian slaves could be killed and tortured by their masters without the legal recourse. Although the status of African Americans was slowly changing in the seventeenth century, the black and white indentured servants hoped to be free. However, thousands of black slaves, who would never get freedom, eventually replaced them.

Each imported servant who was not a Christian in his native land was accounted as a slave. All the imported black people were confined to slavery and remained in a lifelong servitude. All the mulatto, Negro, and Indian slaves were the real estate within the master’s dominion. According to Arthur Schlesinger, the Black Codes of Virginia restricted travel among slaves and prescribed fines in case of miscegenation (73). Authorities made exception for free people from the Christian country. Virginia’s law enacted in 1705 clearly defined the slave status allowing master to use slaves as collateral when borrowing money and assets while paying his/her debt. In fact, the creditor had the first claim on slaves when settling debts. The already freed slave could again be enslaved if it was necessary to settle the debt of former masters.

The Virginia’s Black Codes served as a model for the majority of the colonies and went even further by allowing severe and physical punishment. The Code required slaves to provide written permission in case they left the plantation. Each slave who was found guilty of any offense including robbing, rape, and murders was hanged. For such minor offenses as relations with white men, slaves could be branded, mutilated, and whipped. In the seventeenth century, it was possible to dispute with the masters in the court. Unfortunately, the Black Slave Codes of 1705 rejected this right in the slave state of Virginia. The slave owners could punish the most rebellious slaves with no legal repercussion and get no reprimand in case of the slave’s death. The Black Code obliged the public to pay the masters for the killed slaves.

According to Junius P. Rodrigues, the Slave Codes enacted in Virginia severely restricted the mobility of slaves and penalized those who were involved in miscegenation within the colonies (10). The Black Codes justified the slave owners who killed their subordinates during punishment, prohibited slaves and African Americans attack white people, denied their right to bear arms and go abroad without the master’s permission. The Slave Act consisting of various laws was designed to enslave black Christians. It was described as the worst law aimed at slaves and indentured servants. Any servant who came from a non-Christian country became a slave. Even the further conversion to Christianity did not bring the desired effect on the personal status. The law made an exception for Turks, Moors, and servants who came from the Christian lands and proved to be free in their former place of living.

The Virginia’s Slave Codes did not allow black people to purchase Christians of the white race for enslavement. Even if African Americans or Indians were Christians, they had no right to own servants. Jews and Muslims were also prohibited from engaging white Christians in servitude. In reality, the Slave Act enacted by the state of Virginia in 1705 encouraged free white individuals to capture and track down slaves who were trying to escape. The Black Codes precisely outlined the slaves’ rights, rules, and treatment. Slaves were usually regarded as gifts transferring from one individual to another. Any slave could be proposed as collateral for loans, wagered in the gambling, and awarded as a prize in the raffle. The Black Slave Codes were a great part of the world made and protected by the slaveholders. Millions of slaves could resist these laws and create their free world. However, they could not disregard these codes, and, therefore, they were forced to follow them precisely.