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Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History: Electronic Edition.

Johnson, Guion Griffis, 1900- 1989

CHAPTER XVII THE SLAVE CODE

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CHAPTER XVII
THE SLAVE CODE

           DISCIPLINE of the slave was at all times a difficult matter. If a planter was too lax, his hands were likely to take advantage of him; if he was too severe, they were sullen. A story current during the ante-bellum period was that of a planter who, upon buying a slave, always bestowed upon him a gratuitous lashing to let him know into whose hands he had fallen. 1

Planters did whip their slaves, but they usually found that a system of rewards worked far better than the lash.

PLANTATION DISCIPLINE

           Often in describing a runaway, especially at the beginning of the century, a master would say that the culprit's back had been seared by the whip. 2

It was so general a custom for masters to whip runaways that some planters in advertising for their slaves promised them amnesty if they would return of their own accord. In 1801, Robert Brown, after giving notice of several runaways, held out the following promise to them: "If any or all of these will return to my plantation and to a sense of their duty in a reasonable time, I pledge myself to forgive them." 3

           On the eve of the nineteenth century advertisements occasionally described the runaway as being marked with cropped or slit ears or with the master's initials branded on the cheeks. In 1797 Henry Louis Lutterloh of Chatham County advertised for Doctor who had been branded with the initials H. L. L. on both cheeks, and Thomas White of Fayetteville advertised for Simon who had been "marked in both ears with a half crop and a half moon in the left, and a crop and slit in the right." 4

Presumably, branding and marking were forms of punishment for habitual runaways. The law recognized branding as a legitimate mode of punishing certain offenses. No doubt some planters saw no reason why they should

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not impose a like punishment upon the gravest offense which their slaves might commit. But even in the early ante-bellum period advertisements describing runaways as having been branded began to appear less frequently. As late as 1838, however, a certain Micajah Ricks of Nash County advertised for his slave Betty as follows: ". . . the woman is tall and black, and a few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron on the left side of her face; I tried to make the letter M, and she kept a cloth over her head and face, and a fly bonnet on her head so as to cover the burn." 5

           Prior to 1791, when the malicious killing of a slave was declared to be murder, all other efforts having failed, an owner might promise a reward for the return of the runaway's head. Until the close of the ante-bellum period, slaves who hid out, "killing cattle and hogs, and committing other injuries to the inhabitants of the State," might officially be outlawed and killed upon sight. 6

Even after the act of 1791, some owners still offered rewards for their slaves "dead or alive." In 1805, Thomas Hudson of Halifax County advertised for a runaway in the North Carolina Journal of February 11 as follows: "A reward of ten dollars will be given for securing him in any gaol so that he may be had, or the above reward [of $20] for his head and no questions asked." Twenty years later when another Halifax planter offered $100 for the head of a runaway, public sentiment was horrified. The Catawba Journal of Charlotte declared the advertisement to be "a scandal upon the character of the State" and "an outrage to the morals of society." "Such advertisements as these have a most pernicious influence on our character abroad," continued the Journal, "they find their way into books of travels, and are seized with avidity by the malicious and the ignorant, to blacken our reputation, and to stigmatize us as a band of lawless wretches and unfeeling murderers. The laws of the state do not permit such violations of the moral feelings of the community; and they should be exerted to punish and repress them." 7

           Most masters were inclined to be lenient with their slaves, for public opinion was decidedly against harsh treatment. There were owners, of course, who were wantonly cruel to their slaves just as



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they were to their dogs and their horses. But a great many eased their conscience about holding their fellowmen in bondage by attempting to teach them the Christian standards of living. In 1801 J. Alderson of Wilmington set forth at some length his treatment of a certain "mulatto servant man, commonly called Jack Hammond." "He had often been accused of Burglary and other Crimes previous to his falling into my Hands," explained Alderson, "but I had entertained Hopes, by consistent Treatment, in Time to have made him useful to himself and the Community, and in the mean Time to have found a Reimbursement in his Services. . . . He never has received a Blow, nor even a harsh word from me, nor has he before the present merited my Displeasure in the Smallest Degree." 8 J. G. Blount, a planter of Washington, generally held in high esteem for his good judgment, observed in 1830 that it took a crisis, such as an insurrection or the preaching of abolitionists, to make the people of the State realize that "our discipline has always been too slack." 9

           Planters who systematized the work of their slaves and kept them in the field only a certain number of hours each day usually found that their people were cheerful and happy. "We have adopted this plan even in our farming operations," wrote the editor of the Farmers' Journal, "to feed well, clothe well, and work well, and chastise well when it is needed, not for the sake of gratifying any passion of anger, but from a sense of duty." 10

In Edgecombe County, wrote a planter in 1853, "we endeavor to have our negroes under the best kind of discipline, and they seem to be much better satisfied than those in other counties where they have so many privileges." 11 Even on plantations where the owner listed a certain number of "flogging offences," the most usual punishment was over-time work, cancellation of the customary Saturday afternoon holiday, or some form of confinement. For instance, when W. B. Hathaway of Calcidonia returned home from a short visit and found that some of his slaves had been stealing hogs, he put irons on them and "jailed them of nights and on Sundays." 12

           So readily did slaves respond to good treatment that a planter



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often found that he had but little to do in order to win their good will. Gay head cloths for the women and chewing tobacco for the men accomplished what lashing would not. Chief Justice Ruffin once observed, "Sometimes matters, very trivial in themselves, have exceedingly great effect in improving the slave and uniting him to his owner. I know a gentleman, one of the most successful planters, who produced a marked change for the better among his slaves, by the small boon of a cheap looking glass for each of their quarters. Another bound his people to him by a devoted affection, by joining with solemnity in their processions at the burial of their dead, in a grave-yard which he had protected by a plain post and plank enclosure." 13

           Nevertheless, slave discipline was an art in which few excelled. "The servants will not obey me," lamented Mrs. E. C. Alexander of Burke County. "John ran away 6 weeks since. . . . Last week he returned and says he intends to leave again whenever he pleases. . . . I have not a single servant at my command." 13a

The Reverend Charles Pettigrew, about to settle upon his two sons a large estate well-stocked with slaves, cautioned them that the discipline of the laborers would require all the tact and patience at their command:



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           The law and the courts readily came to the assistance of the master whenever it was desired to terrify petty culprits or to punish those guilty of more serious offenses.

THE SLAVE CODE

           In considering the operation of the law against the Negro, 14

it must be remembered that the slave was property, the most valuable movable property which a person of the ante-bellum period was likely to possess. The law-makers and the keepers and interpreters of the law constantly kept this fact in mind in administering justice to the slave. Viewed thus, the slave code in North Carolina was surprisingly liberal.

           Most of the restrictive measures which the Legislature passed with respect to the slave after the American Revolution looked toward the protection of the property rights of the slaveowner and had to do with restricting the mobility of the slave and with minimizing the possible sources of the slave's mental and moral "corruption." Most of the measures were, in fact, attempts to offset tendencies which might lessen the value of the slave as a piece of property rather than expressions of race prejudice.

           By act of 1741 a special court of two justices and four free-holders tried slaves for offenses involving life, member, or limb; but in 1793 the Legislature called for such cases to be tried in the county courts with a jury of twelve slaveholders. The act was made more specific the following year by providing that the jury should render verdict on evidence submitted and that the court should pronounce judgment "agreeably to the verdict of the jury and the laws of the country." The act of 1793 also provided that the owner of a slave apprehended for a felony should have notice of the trial and that when the owner could not be found the court should appoint counsel for the slave.

           In 1816 the Legislature took cases of felonies out of the county courts and placed them in the superior courts with instruction that a slave not be tried for a capital offense but on indictment by the grand jury and that the trial, except in cases of conspiracy, be conducted as trials of freemen. The Legislature also granted the



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slave in 1816 the privilege of benefit of clergy, a privilege which Virginia extended to slaves as early as 1732. 15 In 1818 the slave obtained the right of challenging jurors.

           During the colonial period it was customary to pay an owner for a slave executed by law. But in 1786 the Legislature abolished the practice, for "many persons by cruel treatment of their slaves cause them to commit crimes." After ten years the Legislature returned to the old custom, allowing counties through special legislation to pay masters two-thirds the value of a slave, the value to be fixed by the jury and the sum to be raised by a special tax on black polls. But the master was not to be paid unless he had fed and clothed the slave well.

           By an act of 1783 all misdemeanors committed by slaves which involved the punishment of whipping, offenses which if committed by a free person would have been tried in the county courts, were cognizable before a single justice of the peace who had power to summon witnesses, review the evidence, and pass judgment. In 1842 the Legislature granted the master, on behalf of the slave, the right to appeal to the county or superior court in such cases.

           The law specifically forbade the slave from doing certain things. It was not lawful for him to be insolent to a free white person; nor to utter mischievous and slanderous reports about any free white person; nor wilfully to trespass on his property or person; nor to intermarry or cohabit with any free person of color; nor for any male slave to cohabit or "indulge in any grossly indecent familiarities with a white female"; nor wilfully to run away from his master; nor to produce a forged free pass or certificate of freedom; nor to go from the place his master had appointed him to live without a certificate of leave in writing from his master or manager; nor to hire his time of his master; nor to go at large as a freeman even with consent of his master; nor to raise any horses, cattle, hogs, or sheep; nor to teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave or free Negro to read or write, the use of figures excepted; nor to sell any spirituous liquor or wine; nor to play at any game of cards, dice, or nine pins; nor to play at any game of chance, hazard, or skill, for any money, liquor, or any kind of property, whether it be staked or not; nor to go armed or hunt



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with a gun; nor to set fire to any woods unless those of his master when so instructed; nor to preach or exhort in public or in any manner officiate as a preacher or teacher at any prayer meeting or other meeting for worship where slaves of different masters were collected; nor to traffic with another slave by buying of or selling to him any articles of property, forbidden absolutely, or forbidden, except by written permission, to be the subject of traffic between white persons and slaves; nor to traffic with any other person without written permission. 16

           Negroes, Indians, and persons of mixed blood to the fourth generation were deemed incapable of being witnesses against a white person. When such persons were about to give evidence they were charged to declare the truth as were white persons and when guilty of perjury were punished as freemen.

           From the beginning of the ante-bellum period until the call for arms there were two well-defined points of view in the Legislature with respect to administering justice to the slave. The liberal group was motivated by the Revolutionary doctrine of "the natural rights of man" 17

and sought constantly to liberalize the slave code. The reactionary group fought for a rigid code on the ground that the slave must be kept down "if the whites expect to live, much less rule." The remaining statute makers may be classified as "independents" who had no particular convictions in regard to the rights of the slave and reserved the privilege of voting with which-ever group aroused their emotions most thoroughly. Most of the restrictive measures passed with regard to the slave in 1830 and 1831, because of the Nat Turner insurrection and the missionary efforts of abolitionists within the borders of the State, were proposed as early as 1800 in a bill "for the better regulation of slaves" which originated in the Senate. This bill would have prevented a Negro from keeping or carrying any kind of weapon; from engaging in "riots, unlawful assemblies, trespasses, and seditious speeches"; from engaging in meetings for religious worship unless conducted by a white preacher "of good morals"; and from buying or selling any goods. The bill also would have forbidden an

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owner to permit slaves of others to come upon his plantation; to teach or cause to teach his slaves to read or write; or to permit a slave to hire his time unless a license be obtained from the county court. 18 The Senate rejected the bill on its first reading.

           In November, 1804, Governor Turner sent a letter to the Legislature from the solicitor general "respecting the trial and punishment of slaves, and the present insufficiency of our jails," and the committee appointed to consider the subject reported the existing laws to be "too lenient." 19

The following year the Senate proposed a joint committee to examine the code with respect to the trial of slaves.

           In the Legislature of 1807-1808 Dr. Calvin Jones of Wake County began the fight to ameliorate the law with respect to the trial of slaves for capital offenses, declaring that "many innocent slaves have been wantonly sacrificed under the injured name of justice." 20

He obtained passage of the act calling for the trial of slaves for capital offenses to be held at the regular term of court instead of by special courts as permitted by the act of 1783. The agitation continued, and in 1816 in response to a resolution offered by Thomas Ruffin of Hillsboro, later chief justice of the Supreme Court, jurisdiction over the trial of slaves for felonies was placed in the superior courts. 21 This was the act which also gave slaves benefit of clergy, a privilege which the courts had already allowed free Negroes. 22

           Despite counter-attacks of the opposing group, the reformers won for the slave the right of challenging jurors in 1818 and at various times prevented the repeal of the law calling for a jury of slaveowners, a bill which often cropped up in the Legislature. Most of the restrictive measures limiting the "natural rights" of the slave were passed between 1830 and 1833, due, as it has already been pointed out, to the fear of insurrection and of abolition. It must be said to the credit of the liberals that they kept a note of sanity in the Legislature at this time, and that, while obtaining only a few pieces of liberal legislation in the later ante-bellum period, they prevented



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any severe tightening of the slave code. 23 After 1830 the Supreme Court accomplished whatever amelioration the slave code underwent.

           The laws concerning the malicious killing of a slave were as important in protecting the slave's life as the laws regulating the trial for offenses committed. In 1791 the Legislature declared the malicious killing of a slave to be subject to the same punishment as the killing of a freeman, except in cases where the slave resisted his master, died under moderate correction, or was an outlaw; but the act was too vague to be effective. In 1799 a case arose in which a slave violently shoved a white man so that he fell, and, upon arising, the white man shot and killed the slave. The Supreme Court held that the white man was guilty of manslaughter, but "under the Act of 1791 . . . no punishment is affixed to the crime of manslaughter committed upon a slave." 24

In 1801 the Supreme Court held that the act of 1791 was too uncertain to warrant passing a sentence of death upon a prisoner convicted under it. 25

           The Legislature took no step to remedy this defect until 1817, but public opinion usually revolted against the wilful killing of a slave. In 1810, for instance, a contributor to the Raleigh Star remarked causticly, "Altho' there is no danger of a man's being hurt by the law for killing a negro, it might be well for some people to know how to punish, without killing them." Several months later, the author of this remark, fearing that the statement "should be misunderstood, and lead to the idea that the practice of killing Negroes is a common amusement with us," explained the circumstances of the case. A planter of a respectable family of Tarboro, accompanied by his servant, had been to Virginia with pork; and, on their return, he had lost $70. He accused the Negro who denied the theft, but the master, being intoxicated and knowing the slave to be dishonest, said he must be whipped into a confession. The slave received a total of between two and three hundred stripes which caused his death. "This was too flagrant a violation of humanity to pass unnoticed. . . . The man was arraigned at the bar, but he was acquitted; though not without murmurs from many of the bystanders." 26



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           To remedy the defect of the act of 1791 the Legislature in 1817 declared the offense of killing a slave homicide, which "shall partake of the same degree of guilt, when accompanied with the like circumstances, that homicide now does at common law." Vague though the act seemed, it gave the slave the character of a human being and placed him "within the peace of the State."

           The Supreme Court had yet to interpret the act and to establish many important points relative to battery committed on a slave. In 1820 the Court, in State v. Tackett, declared the whole design of the act of 1817 that of making the homicide of a slave extenuated by a legal provocation, manslaughter, and of punishing it as such. "It does not go further and determine the degrees of the homicide, but leaves that to be ascertained at common law." 27

The most important aspect of the decision, however, was the fact that the Court permitted the accused to offer as legal provocation the fact that the slave was "turbulent; that he was insolent and impudent to white persons." In 1823 the Court held that while an unprovoked battery on a slave was indictable, every battery on a slave was not indictable "because the person making it may have matter of excuse or justification, which would be no defence for committing a battery on a free person." 28 "It is settled," said Justice Pearson in 1850, "that insolent language from a slave is equivalent to a blow by a white man, in its legal effect, as an excuse for battery." 29

           Although widening the scope of legal provocation, the Supreme Court made other interpretations which were decidedly liberal. In 1820 the Court declared that one guilty of murdering a slave was not entitled to benefit of clergy since murder had long since been ousted of clergy, 30

and in 1823 upheld an indictment at common law for the murder of a slave. 31 In 1827, to offset to some extent the matter of legal provocation, the Court held that it was admissible to give evidence of the slave's good character to repel the presumption of his improper conduct, 32 and in 1828 refused to admit it to be "a necessary rule that a negro found in a man's enclosure at an unreasonable hour of the night may and ought to be treated as a felon." 33



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           The greatest difficulty which faced the Supreme Court with respect to interpretation of the law was the extent of the dominion of the master over the slave. Before the Court had an opportunity to reach a decision, public opinion had already stigmatized unwarranted cruelty. In 1806 when John Slater of Charleston brutally killed his slave and was sentenced to die, North Carolina newspapers "took pleasure" in giving to the public the "eloquent and impressive sentence passed on the inhumanely brutal Slater." 34

Until the Supreme Court, in several notable cases, interpreted the law with respect to a master's battery upon his slave, masters were more often acquitted or given light punishments than sentenced to death for the wilful murder of a slave. In 1822, for instance, Jacob Pope of Halifax County, who brutally whipped a female slave to death, was fined only $200 and costs. Pope had tied the woman's clothes about her head, suspended her body by her arms from an apple tree, lapped her legs about the trunk of the tree, and tied them some inches from the ground. Having secured her in this position, he beat her with a cow-skin to the extent of more than 250 lashes. 35

           In 1829 the Supreme Court handed down the decision in the case of State v. Mann that "the master is not liable to an indictment for a battery committed upon his slave." "The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect," said Judge Ruffin who wrote the decision. "I most freely confess my sense of the harshness of this proposition; . . . and as a principle of moral right every person in his retirement must repudiate it." 36

In 1834 Judge Gaston declared for the Supreme Court, in perhaps the most important decision respecting the rights of slaves in North Carolina, the case of State v. Will: "It is certain that the master has not the right to slay his slave, and I hold it to be equally certain that the slave has a right to defend himself against the unlawful attempt of his master to deprive him of life. . . . There is no legal limitation to the master's power of punishment, except that it shall not reach the life of the offending slave. It is for the Legislature to remove this reproach from amongst us, if, consistently with the public safety, it can be removed." Therefore, "if a slave, in defense of his life, . . . kills his overseer, the homicide is, by such circumstances, mitigated to manslaughter. It

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seems that the law would be the same, with respect to killing a master or temporary owner, under similar circumstances." 37

           In 1839 the Court declared in State v. Hoover that the courts had the power of reviewing an extenuation from provocation when a master committed a battery upon a slave which resulted in death. "If death unhappily ensue from the master's chastisement of his slave, inflicted apparently with a good intent, for reformation or example, and with no purpose to take life or to put it in jeopardy, the law would doubtless tenderly regard every circumstance. . . . But where the punishment is barbarously immoderate . . . and denotes plainly that the master must have contemplated a fatal termination . . . he is guilty of murder." 38

           The Supreme Court had held on various occasions that provocation extenuated a stranger's committing battery upon a slave, but it had only implied that circumstances might extenuate a slave's battery upon a white person. Not for one moment did the Court admit that the cases might be considered on equal terms. For, "if a white man, receiving a slight blow," from a slave "kills with a deadly weapon" it was but manslaughter, but "if a slave, for such a blow, should kill a white man, it would be murder; for accustomed as he is to constant humiliation, it would not be calculated to excite to such a degree as to 'dethrone reason,' and must be ascribed to a 'wicked heart,' regardless of social duty." In 1849, however, in the case of State v. Caesar the Court reached a decision which meant almost as much to the Negro as the earlier case of State v. Will. "If a white man wantonly inflicts upon a slave, over whom he has no authority, a severe blow or repeated blows, under unusual circumstances, and the slave, at the instant, strikes and kills, . . . he is only guilty of manslaughter, giving due weight to motives of policy and the necessity for subordination. The same principle of extenuation applies to the case of the beaten slave's comrade or friend, who is present and instantly kills the assailant without in like manner evincing, by the means used, great wickedness or cruelty." 39

SLAVE CRIMES

           During the first sixteen years of the nineteenth century when the county courts had jurisdiction over the major crimes committed



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by slaves, very few cases appeared on the dockets, only three cases, for instance, in Cumberland County between 1800 and 1805, one in Carteret, four in Rutherford. 40 Of these eight cases four were for theft, three for murder, and one for rape. Three of the cases for theft arose in Rutherford County, where the slave population was small. Two of the Negroes received the maximum punishment of thirty-nine lashes on the bare back and were branded in the forehead with the letter T. The other slave, having stolen only three "middlings," received twenty-five lashes. In Cumberland County, where the other charge for theft arose, the accused was found not guilty. The murder charges arose in Carteret and Cumberland counties. In Carteret County a slave was indicted for the murder of a white man and found not guilty. The two cases in Cumberland County were for murder of slaves, and in each instance the charge was mitigated to manslaughter and the culprits were branded in the brawn of the left hand in the presence of court and thereafter released. 41

           Perhaps the most important reasons for the scarcity of charges brought against slaves were the facts that slaves as a class were a peaceful, law-abiding people and that masters sought to settle out of court the difficulties in which their slaves became involved. It is conceivable that, if the master knew of the offense in time and were so disposed, some sort of amicable arrangement might be made with respect to almost every offense except murder or flagrant insolence to a white person. Although the courts repeatedly held that slaves were persons when committing an offense, masters and at times even the police tended to regard them as property. As late as 1840. J. W. Bryan of New Bern wrote in great bitterness to his brother Judge John H. Bryan:

           To be sure, a master could not carry too far the policy of defending his slaves from the police of the State. Moreover, there were sufficient instances of slave violences against whites to cause a latent fear of the slave population.

           The offense most frequently committed by slaves was that of theft. In fact, petty thieving was so common among them that it was often said to be one of their leading characteristics. Sometimes a penurious master forced his slaves to steal to provide themselves with necessities which he failed to supply. In such cases, both the law and public opinion were lenient with the offending slave. The Farmers' Journal was of the opinion that the Negro would have his food whether his master provided it or not. "And he is sure to steal it, generally from his master, believing that he has a right to do so; and pray who is there to dispute his right?" 43

           Most of the crimes committed by slaves which were mentioned in the newspapers were those of violence toward white persons, sometimes the master himself. In 1802, for instance, the Raleigh Register of December 21 carried news of "a daring murder" committed near Wadesboro "by a negro fellow named Moses on the person of his master. . . . A court and jury were summoned agreeable to law, . . . who proceeded to the trial of the negro; when the culprit acknowledged his guilt, and the Court sentenced him to death. He was hanged on the 8th inst. accordingly," just twelve days after he committed the murder.

           In 1806 a court in Liberty County, Georgia, sentenced a Negro man to be burned at the stake for beating his mistress to death when she attempted to rescue the fellow's wife from the fire where he had knocked her. The sentence was executed "in the



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presence of numerous spectators, who assembled to behold the awful and shocking spectacle." 44 But in 1812 when the Wake County Court sentenced a Negro to be hanged and his body publicly burned for the murder of his young master, the governor remitted the order for burning at the request of a petition signed by "a number of our citizens." 45

           It is difficult to determine accurately the shift in public opinion in regard to slave violences against white persons as the antebellum period wore on, although it would seem from evidence to be found in the newspapers of the State that opinion gradually drifted toward a more summary punishment of the accused Negro as the law became more lenient in administering justice to him. 46

It is difficult to find an editor in the early nineteenth century advocating violence against an offending slave. Editors of the late ante-bellum period were more outspoken. In the issue of December 21, 1850, for instance, the Tarborough Press copied approvingly an opinion which the Norfolk Argus expressed in favor of lynching. A group of Negroes in Norfolk had insulted John Myrick of Hertford County, North Carolina, when he was bringing home his runaway slaves in handcuffs. One of the fellows spoke impudently to Myrick and hit him with a brick when the slaveowner struck him. "The villain would have been shot on the spot by Mr. Myrick," said the Argus, "had there not been danger that some unoffending person in the crowd might have been wounded . . . our opinion is that the miscreant should be hung without the benefit of trial, as an example and terror to all others in like cases offending."

           North Carolina knew the extra-legal methods of dealing with Negro offenders. The posse had punished Negroes in colonial times, and it has continued to do so until the present day. But in 1858 the Supreme Court held that a confession of guilt obtained from a Negro by a mob could not be used against him. 47

In this case, a mob had surrounded three slaves accused of killing their

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master, struck them in the face many times, and threatened to take them from the officers unless they confessed.

           The crime committed by a Negro which seemed to have aroused the dominant race most was that of assaulting a white woman. Charles M. Janson, a British traveler in the United States in the early nineteenth century, tells of a lynching which supposedly took place in Chowan County, North Carolina. A slave assaulted his young mistress in the absence of her parents. "The distracted father," says Janson, "fled to his neighbors, and related the horrid circumstances. The inhabitants quickly mustered, and went in pursuit of the villain, with burning light-wood, . . . He was after a long search discovered. The enraged pursuers tied him to a tree, collected wood around him, and immediately consumed his body to ashes." 48

           While such lynchings may have occurred, they probably were infrequent in the early ante-bellum period. The State newspapers usually mentioned cases of rape without emotion. In the issue of September 14, 1802, for instance, the Register printed the following account of a case which occurred in Raleigh:

           In the issue of July 18, 1820, the Western Carolinian of Salisbury carried news that a Negro man charged with raping a white woman and a white man charged with incest had been "committed to the gaol in this place." The editor dismissed the Negro's case with the remark that it was "said to be one of unusual atrocity"; but upon the white man he turned his editorial wrath: "If the charge be true, it is a crime of a doubly heinous nature, and deserves the severest penalties of human law."

           Instances are on record in which slaves convicted of rape received the governor's pardon on condition that the master would transport them. In 1804, for example, a special court in Salisbury sentenced a slave, named Peter, to death for attempting to commit a rape upon the wife of a certain Nathan Morgan. Morgan



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and "a large number of respectable citizens" petitioned the governor in Peter's behalf "with the promise that the negro, if his death should be dispensed with, should be transported." The governor granted the pardon accordingly. 49

           Not all cases which arose in the courts charging a Negro with approaching a white woman were regarded as assaults as they were likely to be at a later time. For instance, in June, 1834, a case in Pasquotank County Court against Negro Charles was dismissed when a white man, presumably his master, entered bond for $500 for the Negro's good behavior "especially toward Polly Benton." 50

           Negroes were likely to receive leniency in such instances only in those portions of the State where there were large numbers of slaves. In Rutherford County where the slave population was small a case of rape arose in 1801. A special court tried the Negro, found him guilty, ordered him to be hanged, and recorded a "further order" that after his death he should be taken down, "his head Seperated from his body & Stuck on a pole as a teror to Evil doers & all persons in like cases offending & his Body to be entered under [the] Gallos." 51

           But as the years mounted toward the Civil War, even the heavy slaveholding sections became less lenient. On July 17, 1834, the Star, reporting that a Negro man had assaulted a 12 year old girl while she was picking blackberries about a mile from Raleigh, wrote: "It becomes our painful duty to record a deed, which is almost too shocking for recital, and which has created sensations of the most painful nature in our community. . . . The perpetrator of this atrocious deed has thus far eluded detection; but we are in hopes, from the measures that have been taken, that he will yet be discovered, and receive the punishment his villainy merits." In 1859 the Charlotte Whig expressed indignation at the manner in which a trial for rape was conducted in the Rowan Superior Court. "We never heard," said the Whig, "of a female who came into court with such an irreproachable character, being compelled to submit to so trying an ordeal as to be kept on the witness stand 3½ hours; but with all the ingenuity of opposing counsel she could not be made to wavor or contradict herself."



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The paper thought that if the jury had not returned a verdict of guilty, the Negro would have been shot before he left the prisoner's box. 52

SLAVE CONSPIRACIES

           However much the insolence of a Negro to a white woman might have aroused the prejudices of the dominant race, it did not excite the whites to such fear as did concerted action among the slaves. More slave lives were in jeopardy during a scare of insurrection than at any other time, and perhaps greater injustice was meted out to slaves for "conspiracy to rebel" than for any other single offense.

           Typical of the fear which was constantly gnawing at the whites during the early ante-bellum period is an anecdote which the Raleigh Register published on July 6, 1802, after the insurrection scare in Eastern North Carolina. During the heat of the excitement, a report circulated in Winton that the town of Windsor had been burned by the Negroes. The town council sent a messenger by fast horse to determine the truth of the report. On his way he met a messenger coming from Windsor, and on questioning him found that he had been sent to Winton for the same reason. No doubt "a variety of similar alarms are equally untrue," said the Register "and altho' a vigilance on all occasions is truly laudable and praise-worthy, yet it would be highly commendable to trace the authors of such false reports and severely punish those who, from base and unprincipled motives, should dare to inven[one letter illegible: omitted in text ] them."

           The so-called insurrection of 1802 in Eastern North Carolina was the first scare of the century and the second to have occurred in the State. 53

It was typical of the contagion of such an event. The rumor first started in the extreme northeastern counties about the middle of May. The first arrests and trials were in Camden County. On the fifteenth two Negroes were tried, found guilty, and hanged on the evening of the same day. About a week later two more were hanged in Currituck County, "and it is expected," said the Norfolk Herald in reporting the conspiracy, "that many will suffer at Elizabeth city, the jail of which place is full of negroes,

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whose trials come on this week." 54 The scare reached Hertford County the last of May. Colonel Thomas Wynne, in giving the facts to the Halifax Journal, said:

           Some of the men whose names were on the paper lived in Martin County. Orders immediately went out to all captains of the militia to arrest the Negro men in the county and keep them in confinement until further notice. The militia, accompanied by many of the slaveowners, marched the men to Jamestown. By morning a great crowd of whites had gathered. The difference of opinion among them was such, said "a respectable gentleman" who witnessed the proceedings, "that a mob had like to have ensued; the consequence of which would probably have been that a few of the confined wretches would have been shot on the spot, the rest rescued or let loose, and no evidence procured." A few "moderate persons," however, quieted the crowd, called up the militia, ordered them to bring out the Negroes and to keep them under arms at a distance. The crowd selected a committee of inquiry, three members of which were justices of the peace, and gave them authority to examine the Negroes.

           The examiners sat in a room at a distance from the prisoners, adopted rules of procedure, and called for "the youngest and most



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foolish lad" among the Negroes. The committee assured the boy that they knew all about the plot, "that his own testimony should never be given in evidence against him; next, that if he fairly and honestly declared all that he knew, he should be forgiven, and lastly, that in case he denied what we perfectly knew, neither his owner, nor any body else, could afford him any protection, but he would certainly be hanged. We then asked him what he knew of the plot?"

           The boy said that he had been asked two days before if he would "join" and that the person who asked him said that he intended to join all the Negroes, "who were going to rise and kill the white people." The committee read him his deposition; dismissed him without a lash; and sent him away under guard.

           The committee then called for another witness. The second fellow brought forward, "tho' young, was cunning and artful." He "revealed the whole plot." Plans had been under way for three weeks. The tenth of June was the day, the time not to have been generally known until the night before. Arms and horses they expected to get as they went. The leaders were to go to Plymouth on the night of the ninth for further instructions. They intended to kill all the considerable men in the neighborhood, "and get the whole country to themselves." They were to set fire to every white man's house, kill the men and boys over six or seven, the women over a certain age, and keep the young and handsome of the whites for themselves. Some said that both blacks and whites were to be killed, the young Negroes being spared for waiters.

           About "25 or 30, who were all privately examined on Friday and Saturday, without a possibility of any of them knowing what had been previously declared by others, agreed in testimony to the above effect without receiving a single lash," wrote one of the committeemen. But "the old ones and chiefs amongst them" would not acknowledge that they knew anything of the plot. "They were with the exception of three or four whipped, more or less, until they confessed, and their accounts agreed perfectly with the evidence of the others, that never received a stroke."

           Eight of the men examined were held for trial and six or seven held as witnesses. Of this number only two were convicted and hanged. All the others "received a very severe reprimand, and



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were made sensible of the folly and danger of their attempt; after which every one was chastised, more or less, according to his previous bad or good conduct, and ordered home." 56

           By the time the conspiracy flare reached Halifax it had considerably subsided. A special court, however, tried a few and convicted Toney, the slave of William Gilmore, who sent a petition to the governor for his pardon signed by the whole of the court, and two-thirds of the jury who tried the Negro, the attorney who prosecuted him, and almost the whole of the inhabitants of Halifax. 57

           In Pasquotank County, Mingo, the slave of Jesse Redding, implicated a number of slaves on a charge of conspiracy and said that they had a hide-out in a near-by swamp. The militia was called out and a special court met May 22 to try the cases. After having tried three leaders whom Mingo pointed out, without being able to discover any "pregnant circumstances," the court sent Mingo with a part of the militia to find the camp. When Mingo was unable to locate the camp, the court began to suspect that the Negro had been airing a private pique, and tried him for perjury. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to have both ears cut off and receive thirty-nine lashes. 58

           Not until 1805 did the State have another such fright. This time the plot was discovered in Wayne, Sampson, Johnston, and adjoining counties. "What raised the first suspicions in this business," said a "respectable correspondent" of Wayne County, "was the death of one or two of our respectable men. . . . It is said by some of the prisoners that the head men are to be poisoned first, and the rest are to be subdued; and, after retaining a sufficient number in slavery, the balance, if refractory, are to be put to death." A Negro woman was burned at the stake for poisoning her master, mistress, and two others; three Negroes were hanged; one was pilloried, whipped, his ears nailed down and then cut off; another sentenced to transportation; and others, "guilty in a less degree," whipped and discharged. 59



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           Although in 1808 North Carolina felt considerable alarm over the plot which was discovered in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, 60

this State did not have another threat of conspiracy until 1821. Previous to this, however, runaway Negroes on various occasions had organized camps and defied the police. In 1811 a party of men searched Cabarrus Pocosin and found a camp occupied by three men and two women. It contained a "vast deal of plunder" and a great number of keys. The searching party captured the women, killed two of the men, and shot the third, who made his escape. 61 In 1818 a group of whites in Johnston County went in search of runaways and killed one of them. 62

           It was a group of runaways, at one time reported to be eighty in number, who caused the so-called insurrection of 1821. 63

The Negroes had taken refuge in a swamp in Onslow County near a place called White Oaks on Trent River, and the whites feared an insurrection among the Negroes from Wilmington to Washington. On August 7, two justices of the peace in Onslow County unlawfully called out two detachments of militia, 200 men who remained under arms twenty-six days. In September Bladen and Carteret counties also called out the militia. The panic among the whites in that section of the State was widespread. Many white families fled from their homes. William L. Hill, colonel of the Onslow militia, on several occasions stated that the ranks of the Negroes "were filled with the most daring runaways, who well armed and equipped had long defied civil authority, and in open day had ravaged farms, burnt houses, and had ravished a number of females." By the middle of September the band had been dispersed and the whites had returned to their everyday life.

           The nervousness of even the militia during this "Negro-hunt" is revealed by the one battle of the occasion. Toward the last of August two attachments of the Onslow militia were drawing toward the swamp where the runaways had taken refuge. They met at night, unknown to each other, at Trent Bridge near New Bern. Each fired, thinking that the other was the band of desperadoes,



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and the battle terminated, wrote the Fayetteville Observer, "with no little slaughter on both sides; each captain being dangerously wounded and from five to six privates on each side, also badly wounded." 64

           In December, 1825, Tarboro was greatly excited "by the partial discovery of an insurrectionary plot among the blacks" of Edgecombe and, "it is believed, some of the adjacent counties." The plot was hatched, according to a petition which reached the Legislature, by "those preachers who under the semblance of religious worship instill into the minds of the blacks, the most diabolical opinions & prepare them for the perpetration of the most horrible crimes." The Negroes had been told that the national government had set them free in October and that they were being unjustly held in servitude. Christmas Eve was to have been the time for rebellion, but the plot was discovered, the militia called out, and the patrol strengthened. 65

           In 1830 Governor Owen sent to the Legislature a copy of a pamphlet, Appeal in Four Articles, written by David Walker, a North Carolina Negro living in Boston. This pamphlet, which free Negroes had been found distributing, "artfully distorting the peaceful doctrines of the Bible," could leave no doubt that "some reckless persons . . . under the cover of pious exertion" were making a systematic attempt "to sow sedition among our slaves." With the pointed remark that "every wise Legislature should frame its laws to suit their people," Governor Owen left the Negro to the mercy of the General Assembly. 66

           The Legislature and a great many people, otherwise conservative and slow to take alarm, were seized with panic. They felt, especially in Eastern North Carolina, that an insurrection was imminent. "Sundry inhabitants of the counties of Sampson, Bladen, New Hanover, and Duplin humbly" presented the Legislature with a petition to the effect that their "slaves are become almost uncontroulable. They go and come and when and where they please, and if an attempt is made to correct them they immediately fly to the woods and there continue for months and years Committing grievous depredations on our Cattle hogs and Sheep." The



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petitioners wanted the county militia to take over the patrol work, "as patrols are of no use on account of the danger they subject themselves to." 67

           When news of Walker's Appeal reached Washington, the town commissioners promptly doubled the night watch; forbade meetings of Negroes except during the day to hear white preachers; disarmed all free Negroes in the town; sent "an address to a select few in every Captain's Company" of the county militia; ordered immediate musters for a strict examination of the arms required to be held by law; called out the Washington Guards who "made such a display of strength & discipline as must put a damper on the hopes of all seditious persons present"; ordered the Guards to stay under arms, equipped with twenty rounds of cartridges, and to come fully armed in case of an alarm of fire; and dispatched a wagon to Raleigh for an additional supply of public arms. 68

           Until 1830 the State had depended upon the patrol system, the militia, and the insurrection act of 1802 to keep down slave conspiracies. The basis of the patrol system of the early ante-bellum period was the act of 1794, modified in 1802 after the insurrection of that year. The act of 1794 gave the justices of the courts of pleas and quarter-sessions power, "if they deem it necessary" to appoint patrolmen to the number of six in each captain's company of the militia. The patrolmen were to make their rounds at least once every two weeks. They had authority to whip to the extent of fifteen lashes all Negroes found off their masters' plantations without a pass. They were to receive compensation, exemption from jury and road duty and from payment of a part of their county taxes; and they were subject to a fine of £10 for neglect of duty. 69

The act of 1802 placed the patrol system entirely within the jurisdiction of the county court with the proviso that the courts might levy a tax on black polls for the compensation of the patrolmen and that the men should exercise the powers granted them by the act of 1794. 70

           The patrol system was never a satisfactory check upon the



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movements of the slave population. Both slaveholders and non-slaveholders were inclined to consider patrol work onerous. If a patrolman whipped a Negro, his master was likely to be offended and might even bring suit against him. In 1821, however, the Supreme Court decided that patrolmen should be permitted some degree of discretion in the punishment of slaves and that they were not liable in a suit brought by the master unless their conduct clearly demonstrated malice against the master. 71 If the slave's master could no longer protect him from the patrol, the slave himself might even the score. Petitions in 1830 and 1831 declared that if patrolmen angered a slave they made themselves liable to "grievous depredations." "Not long since," said one petition, two patrolmen "had their dwelling house and other houses burnt down" and another "his fodder stack burnt." 72

           Under the excitement created by Walker's Appeal the Legislature made over the patrol system. The new act authorized the county courts to appoint a patrol committee whose duty it was to see that the patrol functioned. The Legislature also increased the power of the patrolmen. Instead of combing the roads for stray Negroes, they might now ride upon the plantation and inspect the quarters "as often as may be necessary." It was the duty of the patrol to visit all suspected places, suppress all collections of slaves, to be diligent in apprehending all runaways, to be vigilant in detecting all thefts, and to bring to justice all persons guilty of trading with slaves. In addition to all this, the patrol was given freedom in the use of the whip, fifteen lashes for slaves found without a pass and thirty-nine lashes for insolence. 73

After the excitement died, however, the patrol was probably no more efficient under the act of 1830 than before it. In the issue of November 2, 1850, a correspondent of the North Carolina Standard complained that the county courts did not appoint patrols and that the patrols when appointed were faithless. A petition to the Legislature in 1860 bitterly criticized the patrol system as "unpaid and inefficient." 74

           The insurrection act of 1802 made conspiracy a felony punishable



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with death. All who agreed to join an insurrection or persuaded others to join were as guilty as those who actually rebelled. The testimony admissible in a trial for conspiracy or insurrection was "the oath of one or more creditable witnesses, the confession of the offender, freely given without any undue influence, either by terror or persuasion, or the testimony of a Negro or other person of colour." The testimony of one Negro, however, was not considered conclusive unless accompanied by "pregnant circumstances." When the court had made a sufficient example, it might commute the punishment of death to transportation beyond the limits of the United States. 75

           To make the conspiracy laws better "suit their people," the Legislature of 1830 imposed a heavy penalty, imprisonment, the pillory, and whipping for the first offense and death for the second, upon any person convicted of bringing into the State with an intent to circulate or knowingly to circulate or publish any literature tending to excite the Negroes to conspiracy or resistance. Death for the second offense also applied to any person who by words endeavored to excite in a Negro "a spirit of insurrection, conspiracy, or rebellion." 76

The Legislature further tightened the law against persons harboring runaways, greatly restricted emancipation, limited still more the activities of free Negroes, and passed the restrictive measures concerning the teaching of slaves to read and write.

           The Legislature also examined the militia laws with a view to making the fighting men of the State more efficient and appointed a committee to determine whether more of the public arms should be distributed throughout the State. The committee advised that arms be sent to all counties that might require them. 77

It was not, however, until the following year that the Legislature made it possible for seven justices of the peace to call out the militia "in all cases of insurrection among slaves or free persons of color, either in any county of this State, or in an adjoining State." The act also authorized three justices to call out the militia to suppress outlawed or runaway slaves. 78 It was the general opinion that "nothing can be better calculated to keep ill disposed slaves quiet than to have

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constantly among them a well disciplined force." The militia was the answer to "that fearful cry" often heard in the mouths of the nonslaveholders: "We will not be harrassed to protect ourselves from injury by other peoples Negroes; but if one blow is struck we will murder them indiscriminately." 79

           Although half expecting an insurrection, the people of North Carolina were shocked in late August of 1831 to learn that an insurrection was actually under way in Southampton County, Virginia. Nat Turner, a slave preacher, set out August 21 with six followers. Soon the band increased and before the Negroes were caught, they had murdered between fifty-five and sixty whites. During the heat of this excitement, a free mulatto man approached a Mr. Usher of Washington, North Carolina, with news that the slaves of the eastern part of this State were preparing to rebel October 4. He named a certain Dave, slave of Thomas K. Morissey, sheriff of Sampson County, as a leader, and said that "the negroes in Sampson, Duplin, and New Hanover, were regularly organized and prepared to rise." Dave was arrested, tried, and convicted. After his conviction, he made a confession to his master and named the leaders in the plot. "Their object was to march by two routes to Wilmington, spreading destruction and murder on their way. At Wilmington they expected to be reinforced by 2,000, to supply themselves with arms and ammunition, and then return." 80

           Panic among the whites reached the point of hysteria. Dave and another slave Jim were immediately executed. By the middle of September thirty Negroes were in jail in Duplin County awaiting trial, twenty-five in Sampson, and fifteen in Wilmington. Other slaves had been whipped and released. Thousands of militia were under arms, and, notwithstanding that "not a single party of negroes, nay, not a single individual, has been found in arms or in rebellion, in any of the counties," 81

the panic continued even as far west as Raleigh.

           "In this place," wrote the Fayetteville Observer of September 21, 1831, "there has been no interruption to business, and no undue excitement; we cannot help, therefore, being astonished at the effects of the reports abroad. Women and children in several counties,



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have fled to the swamps, from which, after a day or two, they emerged, wet, muddy, and half starved." Extravagant reports entirely without foundation gained wide circulation. It was said that Wilmington and Clinton had been captured and destroyed, that the country around had been laid waste, and that Fayetteville had been forced to blow up the bridge across the Cape Fear to protect itself against the insurrectionists. "How it is possible for any one of these reports to gain a moment's credence," said the Observer, "we cannot conceive, but we learn that they have even got into the papers to the north of us." The contagion even reached Rutherford and Burke counties where "the plot of a meditated Insurrection" was discovered among the slaves working in the gold mines. 82

           Fortunately for the accused Negroes in Sampson, Duplin, and New Hanover their trials, under the act of 1816, had to await the regular term of superior court unless the governor granted a special court of oyer and terminer. Most of the counties awaited the regular term of court and thereby permitted the feelings of the whites to cool considerably. On the Edenton circuit, for instance, "not the slightest evidence was adduced to warrant the belief" that the slaves arrested knew anything of the plot and they were accordingly released. The attorney general ordered the slaves held in Northampton County released because of insufficient evidence to justify an indictment. 83

About fifteen Negroes actually suffered death, some of whom died at the hands of a mob.

           Indicative of the revolt which many persons felt at such wild hysteria was the Nash County Humane and Slave Protecting Society which was organized in 1831. The society stated as one of its objectives the prevention of the "indiscriminate and unceremonious sacrifice of slaves by the white population, acting under the influence of excitements: regardless of the truth or falsity of any reported insurrection" fabricated or circulated "to lessen the price of slaves or for any other purpose." 84

           It is a significant fact that the panic of 1831 was the last which seized ante-bellum North Carolina, although later there were several suspicions of conspiracy. In 1840, for example, John H.



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Bryan wrote to his brother-in-law, Ebenezer Pettigrew, "There has been considerable alarm in Craven on account of a supposed conspiracy of the Negroes, and from what I learn they had been talking about it. It is a terrible state of things especially for the female portion of the community, to be subjected to such apprehensions." 85 It was also cause for alarm that two of the five Negroes who accompanied John Brown on his raid of Harper's Ferry were natives of North Carolina.

           It is likely that the rising value of slave property and the prominence of slavery as a national political issue made the people look well to the protection of "the peculiar institution." The petty offenses which slaves committed were settled by the master informally out of court, for the slave was a member of the master's "black family" and the most valuable piece of movable property he possessed. Despite the few instances when a few slaves sought to revolt against their bonds, the slaves as a class were remarkably peaceable. Theft, running away, presence at unlawful meetings, insubordination, hiring their own time, selling produce without a certificate--these were the common offenses which they committed; and, although they were occasionally guilty of murder, arson, burglary, and rape, the percentage of felonies in the catalog of slave crimes was extremely low. Anti-slavery activities were partly responsible for repressive laws designed to safeguard the slave as property. Such laws restricted his mobility, education, emancipation, and privilege of carrying on business. Nevertheless, the slave's position in the eyes of the law had been improved vastly during the period. He had come within the peace of the state and thereby gained the right to be considered a human being. While the laws still recognized the master's unlimited control over his person, it gave the slave the right of resistance when his life was endangered.

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