The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice (1853)

William Goodell, an abolitionist, outlines the “slave code” of conduct in this encyclopedia of legal and social order. In this chapter, Goodell outlines the laws surrounding marriages of enslaved people as contracts. This is critical in understanding the moral and legal precedents used to break up families for commodification.
William Goodell
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 4.

Chapter VIII. 

Being Property, “Goods” and “Chattels Personal,” to all intents, constructions and purposes whatsoever, they have no claim on each other—no security from Separation—no Marital Rights—no Parental Rights—no Family Government—no Family Education—no Family Protection.  

THE family relation originates in the institution of marriage, and exists not without it. We have already proved that slaves cannot have families or be members of families, by proving that they cannot be married. To this latter point, in its connection with the former, we cite the words of Judge Jay: 

“A necessary consequence of slavery is the absence of the marriage relation. No slave can commit bigamy, because the law knows no more of the marriage of slaves than of the marriage of brutes. A slave may, indeed, be formally married, but so far as legal rights and obligations are concerned, it is an idle ceremony.” “Of course, these laws do not recognize the parental relation, as belonging to slaves. A slave has no more legal authority over his child than a cow has over her calf.” (Jay’s Inquiry, p. 132.)  

The fact that the slave, as a chattel personal, may be bought, sold, transported from one place to another, mortgaged, attached, leased, inherited, and “distributed” in the settlement of estates, shows plainly that slaves cannot constitute families. 

“In the slaveholding States, except in Louisiana, no law exists to prevent the violent separation of parents from their children, or even from each other.” (Stroud’s Sketch, p. 50.)  

“Slaves may be sold and transferred from one to another without any statutory restriction or limitation, as to the separation of parents and children, &c., except in the State of Louisiana.” (Wheeler’s Law of Slavery, p. 41.) 

This has been the condition of American slaves in every period of our history, since their first introduction among us. John Woolman, the philanthropist, a minister of the Society of Friends, residing in New-Jersey, bears the following testimony concerning the slaveholders of his times, (A.D. 1757):  

“They often part men from their wives by selling them far asunder, which is common when estates are sold by executors at vendue.” (Journal of the Life of John Woolman, London edition, p. 74.)  

At a later period than this, according to a well-authenticated tradition in the neighborhood, a Congregational minister at Hampton, Conn., (Rev. Mr. Moseley), separated by sale a husband and wife who were both of them members of his own church, and who had been, by his own officiating act as a minister, united in marriage. Yet no legal or ecclesiastical proceedings grew out of the transaction. Some thought it a hard case, but the sufferers were only negroes and slaves.  

It is the common understanding at the South, that slaves do not constitute families. It is the common understanding of the county at large. The American Bible Society, many years ago, proposed to supply each family in the United States with a Bible. After a long effort, it was announced by the Society that the great work was completed. It was afterwards ascertained that no part of the supply went to the then two and a half millions of slaves. The Society made no apology for its mistake, nor acknowledged that it had committed any. Public sentiment in general (with exception of abolitionists) attributed to them no error. The nation knew nothing about families of slaves!

The practice corresponds with the theory. The statement that follows is from Sarah M. Grimke, daughter of the late Judge Grimke, of Charleston, S. C.:

“A slave who had been separated from his wife, because it best suited the convenience of his owner, ran away. He was taken up on the plantation where his wife, to whom he was tenderly attached, then lived. His only object in running away was to return to her; no other fault was attributed to him. For this offense he was confined in the stocks six weeks, in a miserable hovel, not weather-tight. He received fifty lashes weekly during that time, was allowed food barely sufficient to sustain him, and when released from confinement, was not permitted to return to his wife. His master, although himself a husband and a father, was unmoved by the touching appeals of the slave, who entreated that he might only remain with his wife, promised to discharge his duties faithfully; his master continued inexorable, and he was torn from his wife and family. The owner of this slave was a professing Christian, in full membership with the church, and this circumstance occurred while he was in his chamber, during his last illness.” (Weld’s Slavery as it is, p. 23.)  

The following is from Mrs. Angelina Grimke Weld, sister of the preceding witness:  

“Chambermaids and seamstresses often sleep in their mistresses’ apartments, but with no bedding at all. I know of an instance of a woman who has been married eleven years, and yet has never been allowed to sleep out of her mistress’s chamber. This is a great hardship to slaves. When we consider that house slaves are rarely allowed social intercourse during the day, as their work generally separates them, the barbarity of such an arrangement is obvious. It is peculiarly a hardship in the above case, as the husband of the woman does not ‘belong’ to her ‘owner,’ and because he is subject to dreadful attacks of illness, and he can have but little attention from his wife in the day. And yet her mistress, who is an old lady, gives her the highest character as a faithful servant, and told a friend of mine that she was entirely dependent on her for all her comforts; she dressed and undressed her, gave her all her food, and was so necessary to her that she could not do without her. I may add that this couple are tenderly attached to each other.”    

“I know an instance in which the husband was a slave, and the wife was free. During the illness of the former, the latter was allowed to come and nurse him; she was obliged to leave the work by which she made a living, and come to stay with her husband, and thus lose weeks of her time, or he would have suffered for want of proper attention; and yet this ‘owner’ made her no compensation for her services. He had long been a faithful and a favorite slave, and his owner was a woman very benevolent to the poor whites.” “She, no doubt, only thought how kind she was to allow her to come and stay so long in her yard.” (lb., p. 56.)   

“Persons who own plantations and yet live in the cities often take their children from them as soon as they are weaned, and send them into the country; because they do not want the time of the mother taken up with attendance upon her own children, it being too valuable to the mistress. As a favor she is sometimes permitted to go to see them once a year. So, on the other hand, if the field slaves happen to have children of an age suitable to the convenience of the master, they are taken from their parents and brought to the city. Parents are almost never consulted as to the disposition to be made of their children, and they have as little control over them as have domestic animals over the disposal of their young. Every natural and social feeling and affection are violated with indifference. Slaves are treated as though they did not possess them.” (lb., pp. 56-7.)

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from https://ia801400.us.archive.org/5/items/americanslavecod00lcgood/americanslavecod00lcgood.pdf.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What is the title of this chapter?
    The title is “Slaves Cannot Constitute Family.”
  2. Question
    According to Wheeler’s Law of Slavery, how are enslaved people in America treated during this time period?
    “Slaves may be sold and transferred from one to another without any statutory restriction or limitation, as to the separation of parents and children.”
  3. Question
    What evidence does the author use to capture the inhumane treatment of enslaved people, their children and their unions?
    The strong use of language, comparisons to animals, challenging dilemmas put forth by clergymen and the notations that these acts were not across the entire South—as noted several times, Louisiana was exempt—portray this inhumane treatment.
  4. Question
    Drawing from the text, and background knowledge, explain why you believe enslavers thought it was a necessity to break apart unions and families.
    Answers may vary and include these: Separation was used to control and promote fear and dominance over enslaved people while breaking down familial ties.
Reveal Answers
Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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