What was the legal status of black Americans in bondage in the antebellum (1820-1860) deep south?

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brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Specifically, I would refer to the Dred Scott vs. SandfordSupreme Court decision of 1857, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the majority opinion in the case, stated clearly "A black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect".  The Court further defined slaves as "chattel", or mere property, which, much like furniture or livestock, could be taken at will by their owners into any territory in the United States, whether slavery was legal there or not.

In addition, there were specific "slave codes" that had been developed and revised since the 1630s.  By the early 19th century, it was very difficult to free a slave even in your will, and slaves were not legally allowed to preach to congregations, or to be educated at all, even if their master wanted to.

Simply put, legally, slaves were not yet looked at as human beings in the eyes of US law, something that would not change until after the Civil War.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The legal status of "black Americans in bondage" during this time is that they were slaves.  They were officially the property of the people who owned them.  What this means is that they essentially had no rights or privileges except those that were given to them by their owners.

According to the laws of most states in the South, the lives of black slaves were at least protected in theory.  Owners were not legally allowed to kill them for no reason.  However, this sort of protection was more legal than real -- very few masters were ever prosecuted if their slaves died.

So, in general, I would say that the answer to this is that the slaves had essentially no legal rights or protections because they were property.

Please follow the links to see more details about legal restrictions on slaves and other topics related to the slaves' legal status.

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