The Legalities of Slavery

A Depiction of Franklin & Armfield’s Slave Prison in Alexandria, Virginia in 1836.

By the 1830s and 1840s, slavery had become engrained in the American legal system, enjoying protections and safeguards against its abolition and ultimately ensuring its continuation.

From a legal perspective, because slaves were treated as property, they “could be sold, mortgaged, bequeathed, insured, and hired out.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 560.

America was replete with slave dealerships, and one of the largest, Franklin & Armfield, had offices in both Alexandria, Virginia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. See id. The larger dealerships were “sophisticated enterprises.” Id.

The sale of slaves were supervised by courts, much as estate proceedings or bankruptcy proceedings were overseen by courts and continue to be overseen by courts to the present day. See id.

Some states regulated the sale of slaves as well. Louisiana had “elaborate consumer protection laws to help slave purchasers, reflecting the outlook of a major slave-importing state.” See id. Most states had classified slaves as both property and people, in the sense that they could be bought and sold but they could also be prosecuted for crimes. See id. As a technical note, some laws also classified the “unjustified killing of a slave” as murder as well, even though it was rarely enforced against a slave’s owner. See id. citing Thomas Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law (Chapel Hill, 1996), 434; Jenny Wahl, The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery (Cambridge, Eng., 1998); Ariela Gross, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, 2000).

It serves as an interesting study to note the intricate web of regulations and laws that touched on slavery prior to the Civil War, realizing that with the emancipation of slaves, all of these laws would technically be nullified.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that from the beginning, Americans have been quick to legislate, even concerning the most delicate and controversial of topics. Perhaps this speaks to Americans’ value for the rule of law.

This also reflects the deeply ingrained value of capitalism in American society. Where there is a commodity, Americans seek to trade that commodity and make the most money from it possible. Rather than keep slavery a community-based commodity, Americans formed companies, like Franklin & Armfield, which would be hubs for commercial activity.

Setting aside the despicable nature of slavery, these legal developments reflect some of the fundamental American values, from capitalism to rule of law. Those values would only blossom more over the following decades and centuries.

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