“And be it enacted…That all Negroes and Indians…mulattoes or mustizoes who now are, or shall hereafter be, in this Province, and all their issue and offspring, born or to be born, shall be…and remain forever hereafter, absolute slaves..and it shall be always presumed that every Negro, Indian, mulatto, and mustizo, is a slave…”
On the Lord’s Day, September 9, 1739, as their white owners observed their regular Sabbath routines, twenty slaves met down at the Stono River outside Charleston, South Carolina — the beginning of a failed American Revolution. It wasn’t the first slave rebellion in the English colonies, and it wouldn’t be the last (there were some 250 that we know of) — but it was bloody and, in a place where black slaves outnumbered white citizens, fear of a recurrence drove English citizens, steeped in their Bill of Rights and republicanism, to solidify control over their involuntary “workforce” through the mechanism of law afterwards.
By the time of the law’s passage, the approximately sixty rebels involved in the Stono uprising had been hunted down and killed — the right to trial (for the deaths of about twenty whites during the revolt) and access to the judiciary denied them. In May of 1740, however, the state legislature moved to punish too those slaves who had not participated, preemptively, and cruelly. It declared them “absolute” in their enslavement — a legal status that would extend beyond their lifetimes to include those of every one of their line after them.
“And be it further enacted…That it shall not be lawful for any slave, unless in the presence of some white person, to carry or make use of fire arms, or any offensive weapons whatsoever, unless such Negro or slave shall have a ticket or license, in writing, from his master, mistress or overseer, to hunt and kill game, cattle, or mischievous birds, or beasts of prey…”
That the Negro Act of 1740 also prohibited slaves from independently possessing guns and other weapons does not surprise. It seems a rational response — necessary to the forced suppression of unwilling people. The Act did not stop there, however. It went much further, assuring systemic impediments would prevent black Americans from obtaining a measure of material opportunity (if not legal parity) and dignity within the bounds of enslavement as well. The most fundamental example of this was the requirement that slaves carry passes — to move about, to indicate the legality of their presence and actions (as in carrying a weapon), and to tie them always to the permission of white prerogatives. Making them dependent on the will of their masters and governmental agents was not solely a security measure, however. It served also to deny them the humanity that comes with having free will.
“And whereas, several owners of slaves have permitted them to keep canoes, and to breed and raise horses, neat cattle and hogs, and to traffic and barter in several parts of this Province…Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid, That it shall not be lawful for any slave so to buy, sell, trade, traffic, deal, or barter for any goods or commodities…”
In the same vein, the Act’s prohibition against self-employment for slaves both economically handicapped them — assuring they could enjoy no higher standard of living than that for which they were dependent on their white masters’ largesse — and denied them the opportunity to interact with other slaves through commercial networks. It divided and impoverished them, intentionally, and it also eliminated the possibility of negotiating their personal economic opportunities with local whites, who might consider them individually and on their merits. The law dictated a uniform dependent economic station for all slaves instead — a restriction designed to depress them, not simply minimize the threat of rebellion.
“And whereas, many of the slaves in this Province wear clothes much above the condition of slaves..For the prevention, therefore, of such practices for the future, Be it enacted…That no owner or proprietor of any Negro slave, or other slave, (except livery men and boys,) shall permit or suffer such Negro or other slave, to have or wear any sort of apparel whatsoever, finer, other, or greater value than Negro cloth, duffels, kerseys, osnabrigs, blue linen, check linen or coarse garlix, or calicoes, checked cottons, or Scotch plaids…”
Made defenseless and impoverished, the South Carolina Legislature also acted to further demean the surviving slaves — and those for generations forward — in denying them even a choice of clothing. In an age when deference guided social conventions, slaves were bound to wear the clothes of a lower caste, even over the skin that legally already condemned them. It was insult added to injury to restrict their dress after decreeing their color a presumption of their slave status. Always, within the boundaries of South Carolina, they would be judged on sight — by the color of their skin and by the fabric of their clothing. The law here again denied them the chance to be individual — to express themselves freely through fashion or to give an appearance that suggested pride or identification other than that determined for them by white citizens.
“And whereas, many disobedient and evil minded Negroes and other slaves, being the property of his Majesty’s subjects of this Province, have lately deserted the service of their owners, and have fled to St. Augustine and other places in Florida, in hopes of being there received and protected; and whereas, many other slaves have attempted to follow the same evil and pernicious example…”
Finally, lest the slaves attempt to free themselves non-violently from their impoverished and humiliated condition — to reject the social contract of their State — the law established means for preventing escape and punishing runaways for fleeing. Though the Spanish (with whom the English were then at war) hardly offered true equality to those who sought freedom, it was natural that — hearing promises enticing them to abandon their masters for Florida — slaves would desperately seize on a hope for liberty, and life, and to perhaps pursue entrepreneurship, fashion, society — that is, happiness — in some place beyond the reach of their masters’ new law. How else to escape the cruelty and meanness of their masters’ vengeance and the obsessive rule of their fear?