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Slavery elective history: Law

Year 10 Elective History




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United Nations

Over the long arc of human history, slavery has been the rule. By comparison, the international movement to end first the slave-trade, then slavery, and finally to address lesser forms of servitude, has been but a brief moment in time.



Slave codes were a method of protecting the investment of white enslavers in the Colonies by restricting the lives of enslaved people in almost every imaginable way. The codes restricted enslaved people’s ability to move around, or engage in commerce that could make them financially independent - they restricted the opportunities that would allow them to live with even relative freedom. Today, we'll learn how Colonies put laws in place to restrict the movement and freedoms of enslaved people and free Black people.

In this episode, Chris Calton looks at the horrors of fugitive slave laws, the ways government incentivized the kidnapping of free blacks, and the rise of private defense groups to fight off slavers. Calton gives a revisionist look at the antebellum period leading up to the Civil War. This is the third episode in the second season of Historical Controversies.

Historian Matthew Pinsker presents a quick rundown of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

National Parks Ethnography Program

All of the colonies developed laws to establish and maintain dominance over African members of society. This held true for Africans who came to the New World as free agents, servants or as slaves. The bodies of law that evolved, known variously as “Slave Codes,” “Black Codes,” and “Code Noir,” aimed to limit African social, economic and political autonomy as well as to control the growth of a free African population.

Slavery, the Constitution and the lasting Legacy

The Constitution’s authors leave out their vital distinction between person and property, and in doing so, they ultimately protect one of history’s most oppressive institutions.


By definition slavery must be sanctioned by the society in which it exists, and such approval is most easily expressed in written norms or laws. Thus it is not accidental that even the briefest code of a relatively uncomplicated slave-owning society was likely to contain at least a few articles on slavery.


Black codes were restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans.