Even before the uprising in Stono, whites in South Carolina feared a slave revolt. They considered their vulnerability, and in light of that, the legislature passed the Security Act in August of 1739. The law required white men to carry weapons even on their Sunday religious outings, contrary to the practice of the time. Before the penalties of the law went into effect, however, slaves made their Lord’s Day revolt — only to be suppressed violently through extralegal means. In the aftermath, the legislature dealt harshly in punishing the innocent slave population, but — interestingly — it also took steps then to curtail the sovereignty of slave owners too with the passage of the Negro Act of 1740.
“And for the better keeping slaves in due order and subjection, Be it further enacted…That no person whatsoever shall permit or suffer any slave under his or their care or management, and who lives or is employed in Charlestown, or any other town in this Province, to go out of the limits of the said town, or any such slave who lives in the country, to go out of the plantation to which such slave belongs, or in which plantation such slave is usually employed, without a letter…”
Controlling the local slave population likewise required controlling their white owners. Whether slave-owners wished to or not — and whether they were literate or not — the State forced them to track and restrict the freedom of movement of their slaves and provide written passes authorizing their travel. Were owners inclined to be lax about minding their slaves or willing to allow them to wander freely (perhaps to pay Sunday visits to neighboring sites on their day of rest) or simply averse to bothering to make a record of their desire for their slave representatives to run errands on their behalf, they would no longer have the freedom of their prerogative on that. In other words, fear of revolt from black slaves drove whites to also regulate each other and curtail the rights of free citizens to use their “property” as they saw fit. Oppression of the slaves required coercion of the oppressing class as well.
“And whereas, the having of slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it therefore enacted…That all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereinafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught, to write…shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds current money.”
After the uprising, fear of a recurrence led to greater restrictions on white owners, but it also forced them into additional injustices towards their slaves. Prohibiting whites from educating their slaves certainly denied owners full use of their resources and the opportunity to develop their industries to their utmost. Worse, it compelled them to further dehumanize their black captives. The price of preventing written communication between slaves and opportunities for them to pursue their freedom in coordination with one another was denying them also the wonder of knowledge and intellectual growth. The natural consequence of that was to further degrade slaves and set a pattern for education in black communities that lingers still today. Thus, this law, under penalty of £100, promoted white collusion to bring even greater injustice upon innocent black Americans.
“And whatsoever master, owner or overseer shall permit or suffer his or their Negro or other slave or slaves…to beat drums, blow horns, or use any other loud instruments or whosoever shall suffer and countenance any public meeting or feastings of strange Negroes or slaves in their plantations, shall forfeit ten pounds, current money, for every such offence…”
Slave-owners were not only bound to deny their slaves opportunity for intellectual growth; they were also obliged to silence their sounds of joy, creativity, and communication. By law, masters could not permit either their association with other blacks. Hospitality and sociability became illegal acts for slaves; public celebrations and pulsing, blaring, sounding vociferance, more humanity denied them by the rule of law — and not just the whim or inclination of an individual cruel owner. The law bound whites together to a code of oppression, and it became, then, systemic.
“…and for every scalp of a grown Negro slave with the two ears, taken on the south side of St. John’s river, the sum of fifty pounds.”
Lastly, after forcing the cooperation of whites to further denigrate the humanity they might be willing to grant their slaves by denying them movement, sound, reading and opportunities to assemble and to curtail the rights of owners themselves, the law made citizens mercenaries as well. It granted license to any white person to capture, kill and scalp blacks running for their freedom and offered a bounty to entice them to do it. It was not the duty of the State alone — or even the chore of the slave-owner himself — to control slaves then. White colonists were enlisted to police the slave population (even if they were not slave-owners themselves), making all complicit in the subjugation of another race and enforcers of the systemic oppression. That they may not have used this license did not remove them from the conspiracy. Desired or not, they were coerced into the bond of white privilege by the law, and their trepidation drove the alliance, forever tying peace and order to group oppression of an intentionally dehumanized and handicapped class of people for the benefit of free labor.