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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER XII. A COMPARISON OF THE ROMAN LAW OF SLAVERY WITH THE AMERICAN.
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CHAPTER XII. A COMPARISON OF THE ROMAN LAW OF SLAVERY WITH THE AMERICAN.
The writer has expressed the opinion that the American law of slavery, taken throughout, is a more severe one than that of any other civilized nation, ancient or modern, if we except, perhaps, that of the Spartans. She has not at hand the means of comparing French and Spanish slave-codes; but, as it is a common remark that Roman slavery was much more severe than any that has ever existed in America, it will be well to compare the Roman with the American law. We therefore present a description of the Roman slave-law, as quoted by William Jay, Esq., from Blair’s “Inquiry into the State of Slavery among the Romans,” giving such references to American authorities as will enable the reader to make his own comparison, and to draw his own inferences.

I. The slave had no protection against the avarice, rage, or lust of the master, whose authority was founded in absolute property; and the bondman was viewed less as a human being subject to arbitrary dominion, than as an inferior animal, dependent wholly on the will of his owner.

See law of South Carolina, in Stroud’s “Sketch of the Laws of Slavery,” p. 23.
2 Brev. Dig. 229. Prince’s Dig. 446. Cobb’s Dig. 971.

Slaves shall be deemed, sold, taken, reputed and adjudged in law to be chattels personal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatever.
Lou. Civil Code, art. 35. Stroud’s Sketch, p. 22.

A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs.
Judge Ruffin’s Decision in the case of The State v. Mann. Wheeler’s Law of Slavery, 246.

——Such obedience is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body. There is nothing else which can operate to produce the effect. The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.

II. At first, the master possessed the uncontrolled power of life and death.
Judge Clarke, in case of State of Miss. v. Jones. Wheeler, 252.

At a very early period in Virginia, the power of life over slaves was given by statute.

III. He might kill, mutilate or torture his slaves, for any or no offence; he might force them to become gladiators or prostitutes.

The privilege of killing is now somewhat abridged; as to mutilation and torture, see the case of Souther v. The Commonwealth, 7 Grattan, 673, quoted in Chapter III., above. Also State v. Mann, in the same chapter, from Wheeler, p. 244.

IV. The temporary unions of male with female slaves were formed and dissolved at his command; families and friends were separated when he pleased.

See the decision of Judge Mathews in the case of Girod v. Lewis, Wheeler, 199:

It is clear, that slaves have no legal capacity to assent to any contract. With the consent of their master, they may marry, and their moral power to agree to such a contract or connection as that of marriage cannot be doubted; but whilst in a state of slavery it cannot produce any civil effect, because slaves are deprived of all civil rights.

See also the chapter below on “the separation of families,” and the files of any southern newspaper, passim.

V. The laws recognized no obligation upon the owners of slaves, to furnish them with food and clothing, or to take care of them in sickness.

The extent to which this deficiency in the Roman law has been supplied in the American, by “protective acts,” has been exhibited above.[13]

VI. Slaves could have no property but by the sufferance of their master, for whom they acquired everything, and with whom they could form no engagements which could be binding on him.

The following chapter will show how far American legislation is in advance of that of the Romans, in that it makes it a penal offence on the part of the master to permit his slave to hold property, and a crime on the part of the slave to be so permitted. For the present purpose, we give an extract from the Civil code of Louisiana, as quoted by Judge Stroud:
Civil Code, Article 35. Stroud, p. 22.

108A slave is 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.
Wh’ler’s Law of Slavery, p. 246. State v. Mann.

According to Judge Ruffin, a slave is “one doomed in his own person, and his posterity, to live without knowledge, and without the capacity to make anything his own, and to toil that another may reap the fruits.”

With reference to the binding power of engagements between master and slave, the following decisions from the United States Digest are in point (7, p. 449):
Gist v. Toohey, 2 Rich. 424.

All the acquisitions of the slave in possession are the property of his master, notwithstanding the promise of his master that the slave shall have certain of them.
Ibid.

A slave paid money which he had earned over and above his wages, for the purchase of his children into the hands of B, and B purchased such children with the money. Held that the master of such slave was entitled to recover the money of B.

VII. The master might transfer his rights by either sale or gift, or might bequeath them by will.
Law of S. Carolina. Cobb’s Digest, 971.

Slaves shall be deemed, sold, taken, reputed and adjudged in law, to be chattels personal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever.

VIII. A master selling, giving, or bequeathing a slave, sometimes made it a provision that he should never be carried abroad, or that he should be manumitted on a fixed day; or that, on the other hand, he should never be emancipated, or that he should be kept in chains for life.
Williams v. Ash, 1 How. U. S. Rep. 1. 5 U. S. Dig. 792, § 5.

We hardly think that a provision that a slave should never be emancipated, or that he should be kept in chains for life, would be sustained. A provision that the slave should not be carried out of the state, or sold, and that on the happening of either event he should be free, has been sustained.

The remainder of Blair’s account of Roman slavery is devoted rather to the practices of masters than the state of the law itself. Surely, the writer is not called upon to exhibit in the society of enlightened, republican and Christian America, in the nineteenth century, a parallel to the atrocities committed in pagan Rome, under the sceptre of the persecuting C?sars, when the amphitheatre was the favorite resort of the most refined of her citizens, as well as the great “school of morals” for the multitude. A few references only will show, as far as we desire to show, how much safer it is now to trust man with absolute power over his fellow, than it was then.

IX. While slaves turned the hand-mill they were generally chained, and had a broad wooden collar, to prevent them from eating the grain. The FURCA, which in later language means a gibbet, was, in older dialect, used to denote a wooden fork or collar, which was made to bear upon their shoulders, or around their necks, as a mark of disgrace, as much as an uneasy burden.

The reader has already seen, in Chapter V., that this instrument of degradation has been in use, in our own day, in certain of the slave states, under the express sanction and protection of statute laws; although the materia............
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