Legal Status of Slaves in America

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Slavery was theoretically an economic phenomenon. Throughout history, slavery has existed where it has been economically beneficial to those in power. Slavery served as an advantage not only to masters but was beneficial to cotton consumers, insurance companies and industrial enterprises as well. Just before the civil war "nearly 4 million slaves with a market value close to $4 billion lived in the United States." These slaves were very valuable property. For their labor is what allowed the United States to flourish economically. This valuable property required rules to protect it, to maintain the economic progress that resulted from slave labor. The legal status of slaves were based primarily on their owners and their owners decisions. Slave owners had the choice of allowing certain obligations that some-what gave the slaves a sense of self. However, these privileges were used as another means of control and helped reinforce power. There were numerous laws and restrictions on slaves. Many of these restrictions were based on both race and skin color. Often times these restrictions followed the status of their mother. Although mainly blacks were enslaved and forced to abide by these laws and restrictions, there were some Native Americans who were given the same restrictions. Most of the laws dehumanized the slaves, treating them as if they were more like animals rather than people of passion, emotion and affection.

The institution of slavery began in America in Virginia in 1619 where large numbers of Africans were bought to North America against their will. However, the idea of lifetime slavery did not occur immediately. Slaves were originally bought over as indentured servants in which many of them would eventually become free. "But within a few short decades, the lot of slaves had evolved into one of permanent lifetime servitude from which there was no escape, save by the voluntary manumission on the part of the owner, which was not likely to occur." This change was a result in Colonial America becoming labor poor and labor was highly valued. Thus slaves became an economic commodity in which their monetary worth rose as the economic fortunes of America rose. In the 1660s, the demand for labor in Virginia passed the supply of indentured servants from England. "The Virginia colony revised its laws in that decade to establish that blacks could be kept in slavery permanently, generation after generation." In 1661, Virginia colonies enacted a law that legitimized African slavery and provided that the status of an African child would be determined by the status of its mother. Aside from the growing demands on labor, racism of blacks preceded the adoption of a legal system supporting lifetime slavery in Virginia. "Every year between 1667 and 1672 the General assembly enacted legislation which increasingly defined a Virginian's status by skin color. Similar laws followed in 1680, 1682, and 1686."

The idea of inferiority was encouraged in order to help slavery prosper. These ideas not only helped slavery prosper but it helped shaped many other laws as well. "A racist ideology can and was woven into law that was handed down by the courts and legislatures." White Virginians understood that the ideology had to be supported by actions. They had to make African Americans aware of their limitations. "The African Americans themselves must come to realize their wretched status; black youngsters must be "educated" as to their place and limitations Only then would African Americans lose all just ideas of their natural position. When African Americans believed in their inferiority, the precept would become both a part of law and a part of life" Southern slavery largely identified skin color with status. Those who appeared to be either African or of African descent were presumed slaves. Making Blacks feel inferior to whites was one of the first steps to constructing their legal status.

With the spread of slavery different laws and...
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