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HOME > Biographical > Harriet Beecher Stowe > CHAPTER XIII. THE MEN BETTER THAN THEIR LAWS.
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Judgment is turned away backward,
And Justice standeth afar off;
For Truth is fallen in the street,
And Equity cannot enter.
Yea, Truth faileth;
Isaiah 59: 14, 15.

There is one very remarkable class of laws yet to be considered.

So full of cruelty and of unmerciful severity is the slave-code,—such an atrocity is the institution of which it is the legal definition,—that there are multitudes of individuals too generous and too just to be willing to go to the full extent of its restrictions and deprivations.

A generous man, instead of regarding the poor slave as a piece of property, dead, and void of rights, is tempted to regard him rather as a helpless younger brother, or as a defenceless child, and to extend to him, by his own good right arm, that protection and those rights which the law denies him. A religious man, who, by the theory of his belief, regards all men as brothers, and considers his Christian slave, with himself, as a member of Jesus Christ,—as of one body, one spirit, and called in one hope of his calling,—cannot willingly see him “doomed to live without knowledge,” without the power of reading the written Word, and to raise up his children after him in the same darkness.

Hence, if left to itself, individual humanity would, in many cases, practically abrogate the slave-code. Individual humanity would teach the slave to read and write,—would build school-houses for his children, and would, in very, very many cases, enfranchise him.

The result of all this has been foreseen. It has been foreseen that the result of education would be general intelligence; that the result of intelligence would be a knowledge of personal rights; and that an inquiry into the doctrine of personal rights would be fatal to the system. It has been foreseen, also, that the example of disinterestedness and generosity, in emancipation, might carry with it a generous contagion, until it should become universal; that the example of educated and emancipated slaves would prove a dangerous excitement to those still in bondage.

For this reason, the American slave-code, which, as we have already seen, embraces, substantially, all the barbarities of that of ancient Rome, has had added to it a set of laws more cruel than any which ancient and heathen Rome ever knew,—laws designed to shut against the slave his last refuge,—the humanity of his master. The master, in ancient Rome, might give his slave whatever advantages of education he chose, or at any time emancipate him, and the state did not interfere to prevent.[16]

But in America the laws, throughout all the slave states, most rigorously forbid, in the first place, the education of the slave. We do not profess to give all these laws, but a few striking specimens may be presented. Our authority is Judge Stroud’s “Sketch of the Laws of Slavery.”
Stroud’s Sketch, p. 88.

The legislature of South Carolina, in 1740, enounced the following preamble:—“Whereas, the having of slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences;” and enacted that the crime of teaching a slave to write, or of employing a slave as a scribe, should be punished by a fine of one hundred pounds, current money. If the reader will turn now to the infamous “protective” statute, enacted by the same legislature, in the same year, he will find that the same penalty has been appointed for the cutting out of the tongue, putting out of the eye, cruel scalding, &c., of any slave, as for the offence of teaching him to write! That is to say, that to teach him to write, and to put out his eyes, are to be regarded as equally reprehensible.
Stroud’s Sketch, p. 89. 2 Brevard’s Digest, pp. 254–5.

That there might be no doubt of the “great and fundamental policy” of the state, and that there might be full security against the “great inconveniences” of “having of slaves taught to write,” it was 111enacted, in 1800, “That assemblies of slaves, free negroes, &c., * * * * for the purpose of mental instruction, in a confined or secret place, &c. &c., is [are] declared to be an unlawful meeting;” and the officers are required to enter such confined places, and disperse the “unlawful assemblage,” inflicting, at their discretion, “such corporal punishment, not exceeding twenty lashes, upon such slaves, free negroes, &c., as they may judge necessary for deterring them from the like unlawful assemblage in future.”
Stroud, pp. 88, 89.

The statute-book of Virginia is adorned with a law similar to the one last quoted.
Stroud’s Sketch, pp. 89, 90.

The offence of teaching a slave to write was early punished, in Georgia, as in South Carolina, by a pecuniary fine. But the city of Savannah seems to have found this penalty insufficient to protect it from “great inconveniences,” and we learn, by a quotation in the work of Judge Stroud from a number of “The Portfolio,” that “the city has passed an ordinance, by which any person that teaches any person of color, slave or free, to read or write, or causes such person to be so taught, is subjected to a fine of thirty dollars for each offence; and every person of color who shall keep a school, to teach reading or writing, is subject to a fine of thirty dollars, or to be imprisoned ten days, and whipped thirty-nine lashes.”

Secondly. In regard to religious privileges:

The State of Georgia has enacted a law, “To protect religious societies in the exercise of their religious duties.” This law, after appointing rigorous penalties for the offence of interrupting or disturbing a congregation of white persons, concludes in the following words:
Stroud, p. 92. Prince’s Digest, p. 342.

No congregation, or company of negroes, shall, under pretence of divine worship, assemble themselves, contrary to the act regulating patrols.
Stroud, p. 93. Prince’s Digest, p. 447.

“The act regulating patrols,” as quoted by the editor of Prince’s Digest, empowers every justice of the peace to disperse ANY assembly or meeting of slaves which may disturb the peace, &c., of his majesty’s subjects, and permits that every slave found at such a meeting shall “immediately be corrected, WITHOUT TRIAL, by receiving on the bare back twenty-five stripes with a whip, switch, or cowskin.”

The history of legislation in South Carolina is significant. An act was passed in 1800, containing the following section:
Stroud, p. 93. 2 Brevard’s Dig. 254, 255.

It shall not be lawful for any number of slaves, free negroes, mulattoes or mestizoes, even in company with white persons, to meet together and assemble for the purpose of mental instruction or religious worship, either before the rising of the sun, or after the going down of the same. And all magistrates, sheriffs, militia officers, &c. &c., are hereby vested with power, &c., for dispersing such assemblies, &c.

The law just quoted seems somehow to have had a prejudicial effect upon the religious interests of the “slaves, free negroes,” &c., specified in it; for, three years afterwards, on the petition of certain religious societies, a “protective act” was passed, which should secure them this great religious privilege; to wit, that it should be unlawful, before nine o’clock, “to break into a place of meeting, wherein shall be assembled the members of any religious society of this state, provided a majority of them shall be white persons, or otherwise to disturb their devotion, unless such person shall have first obtained * * * * a warrant, &c.”

Thirdly. It appears that many masters, who are disposed to treat their slaves generously, have allowed them to accumulate property, to raise domestic animals for their own use, and, in the case of intelligent servants, to go at large, to hire their own time, and to trade upon their own account. Upon all these practices the law comes down, with unmerciful severity. A penalty is inflicted on the owner, but, with a rigor quite accordant with the tenor of slave-law the offence is considered, in law, as that of the slave, rather than that of the master; so that, if the master is generous enough not to regard the penalty which is imposed upon himself, he may be restrained by the fear of bringing a greater evil upon his dependent. These laws are, in some cases, so constructed as to make it for the interest of the lowest and most brutal part of society that they be enforced, by offering half the profits to the informer. We give the following, as specimens of slave legislation on this subject:

The law of South Carolina:
Stroud, pp. 46, 47. James’ Digest, 385, 386. Act of 1740.

It shall not be lawful for any slave to buy, sell, trade, &c., for any goods, &c., without a license from the owner, &c.; nor shall any slave be permitted to keep any boat, periauger,[17] or canoe, 112or raise and breed, for the benefit of such slave, any horses, mares, cattle, sheep, or hogs, under pain of forfeiting all the goods, &c., and all the boats, periaugers, or canoes, horses, mares, cattle, sheep or hogs. And it shall be lawful for any person whatsoever to seize and take away from any slave all such goods, &c., boats, &c. &c., and to deliver the same into the hands of any justice of the peace, nearest to the place where the seizure shall be made; and such justice shall take the oath of the person making such seizure, concerning the manner thereof; and if the said justice shall be satisfied that such seizure has been made according to law, he shall pronounce and declare the goods so seized to be forfeited, and order the same to be sold at public outcry, one half of the moneys arising from such sale to go to the state, and the other half to him or them that sue for the same.
2 Cobb’s Dig. 284.

The laws in many other states are similar to the above; but the State of Georgia has an additional provision, against permitting the slave to hire himself to another for his own benefit; a penalty of thirty dollars is imposed for every weekly offence, on the part of the master, unless the labor be done on his own premises. Savannah, Augusta, and Sunbury, are places excepted.
Stroud, p. 47

In Virginia, “if the master shall permit his slave to hire himself out,” the slave is to be apprehended, &c., and the master to be fined.

In an early act of the legislature of the orthodox and Presbyterian State of North Carolina, it is gratifying to see how the judicious course of public policy is made to subserve the interests of Christian charity,—how, in a single ingenious sentence, provision is made for punishing the offender against society, rewarding the patriotic informer, and feeding the poor and destitute:
Stroud’s Sketch, p. 47.

All horses, cattle, hogs or sheep, that, one month after the passing of this act, shall belong to any slave, or be of any slave’s mark, in this state, shall be seized and sold by the county wardens, and by them applied, the one-half to the support of the poor of the county, and the other half to the informer.
Stroud, p. 48.

In Mississippi a fine of fifty dollars is imposed upon the master who permits his slave to cultivate cotton for his own use; or who licenses his slave to go at large and trade as a freeman; or who is convicted of permitting his slave to keep “stock of any description.”

To show how the above law has been interpreted by the highest judicial tribunal of the sovereign State of Mississippi, we repeat here a portion of a decision of Chief Justice Sharkey, which we have elsewhere given more in full.

Independent of the principles laid down in adjudicated cases, our statute-law prohibits slaves from owning certain kinds of property; and it may be inferred that the legislature supposed they were extending the act as far as it could be necessary to exclude them from owning any property, as the prohibition includes that kind of property which they would most likely be permitted to own without interruption, to wit: hogs, horses, cattle, &c. They cannot be prohibited from holding such property in consequence of its being of a dangerous or offensive character, but because it was deemed impolitic for them to hold property of any description.

It was asserted, at the beginning of this head, that the permission of the master to a slave to hire his own time is, by law, considered the offence of the slave; the slave being subject to prosecution therefor, not the master. This is evident from the tenor of some of the laws quoted and alluded to above. It will be still further illustrated by the following decisions of the courts of North Carolina. They are copied from the Supplement to the U. S. Digest, vol. II. p. 798:
The State v. Clarissa. 5 Iredell, 221.

139. An indictment charging that a certain negro did hire her own time, contrary to the form of the statute, &c., is defective and must be quashed, because it was omitted to be charged that she was permitted by her master to go at large, which is one essential part of the offence.

140. Under the first clause of the thirty-first section of the 111th chapter of the Revised Statutes, prohibiting masters from hiring to slaves their own time, the master is not indictable; he is only subject to a penalty of forty dollars. Nor is the master indictable under the second clause of that section; the process being against the slave, not against the master.—Ib.

142. To constitute the offence under section 32 (Rev. Stat. c. cxi. § 32) it is not necessary that ............
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