The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin Chapter XII: A Comparison of the Roman Law of Slavery with the American.
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The writer has expressed the opinion that the
American law of slavery, taken throughout, is a more severe one than that
of any other civilised nation, ancient or modern, if we except, perhaps, that
of the Spartans. She has not at hand the means of comparing French and Spanish
slave-codes; but, as it is a common remark that Roman slavery was much more
severe than any that has ever existed in America, it will be well to compare
the Roman with the American law. We therefore present a description of the
Roman slave-law, as quoted by William Jay, Esq., from Blair's "Inquiry
into the State of Slavery among the Romans," giving such references
to American authorities as will enable the reader
to make his own comparison, and to draw his own inferences.
I. The slave had no protection against the avarice, rage, or lust of the
master, whose authority was founded in absolute property; and the bondman
was viewed less as a human being subject to arbitrary dominion, than as an
inferior animal dependent wholly on the will of his owner.
See law of South Carolina, in Stroud's "Sketch of the Laws of Slavery,"
Slaves shall be deemed, sold, taken, reputed and adjudged in law to be
chattels personal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors,
administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatever.
[2 Brev. Dig. 219. Prince's Dig. 446. Cobb's Dig. 971.]
A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. [Lou.
Civil Code, art. 35. Stroud's Sketch, p. 22.]
Such obedience is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the
body. There is nothing else which can operate to produce the effect. The power
of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.
[Judge Ruffin's Decision in the Case of The State v.
Mann. Wheeler's Law of Slavery, 246.]
II. At first, the master possessed the uncontrolled power of life and death.
At a very early period in Virginia, the power of life over slaves was given
by statute. [Judge Clarke, in case of State of Miss. v. Jones. Wheeler, 252.]
III. He might kill, mutilate, or torture his slaves, for any or no offence;
he might force them to become gladiators or prostitutes.
The privilege of killing is now somewhat abridged; as to mutilation and
torture, see the case of Souther v. The Commonwealth, 7 Grattan, 673, quoted in Chapter
III. above. Also, State v. Mann, in the same chapter, from Wheeler, p. 244.
IV. The temporary unions of male with female slaves were formed and dissolved
at his command; families and friends were separated when he pleased.
See the decision of Judge Mathews, in the case of Girod v. Lewis, Wheeler, 199:
It is clear that slaves have no legal capacity to assent to any contract.
With the consent of their master, they may marry, and their moral power to
agree to such a contract or connexion as that of marriage cannot be doubted;
but whilst in a state of slavery it cannot produce any civil effect, because
slaves are deprived of all civil rights.
See also the chapter below on "the Separation of Families,"
and the files of any Southern newspaper, passim.
V. The laws recognised no obligation upon the owners of slaves, to furnish
them with food and clothing, or to take care of them in sickness.
The extent to which this deficiency in the Roman law has been supplied
in the American, by "protective Acts,"
has been exhibited above.
VI. Slaves could have no property but by the sufferance of their master,
for whom they acquired everything, and with whom they could form no engagements
which could be binding on him.
The following chapter will show how far American legislation is in advance
of that of the Romans, in that it makes it a penal offence on the part of
the master to permit his slave to hold property, and a crime on the part of
the slave to be so permitted. For the present purpose, we give an extract
from the Civil Code of Louisiana, as quoted by Judge Stroud:--
A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The
master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labour; he
can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong
to his master. [Civil Code, Article 35. Stroud, p. 22.]
According to Judge Ruffin, a slave is "one doomed in his own person,
and his posterity, to live without knowledge, and without the capacity to
make anything his own, and to toil that another may reap the fruits."
[Wheeler's Law of Slavery, p. 246. State v. Mann.]
With reference to the binding power of engagements between master and slave,
the following decisions from the United States Digest are in point (7, p.
All the acquisitions of the slave in possession are the property of his
Gist v. Toohey, 2 Rich. 424.
notwithstanding the promise of his master that the slave shall have certain
A slave paid money which he had earned over and above his wages, for
the purchase of his children, into the hands of B, and B purchased such
children with the money. Held that the master of such slave was entitled to
recover the money of B.
VII. The master might transfer his rights by either sale or gift, or might
bequeath them by will.
Slaves shall be deemed, sold, taken, reputed, and adjudged in law, to be
chattelspersonal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors,
administrators, and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever.
[Law of S. Carolina. Cobb's Digest, 971.]
VIII. A master selling, giving, or bequeathing a slave, sometimes made
it a provision that he should never be carried abroad, or that he should be
manumitted on a fixed day; or that, on the other hand, he should never be
emancipated, or that he should be kept in chains for life.
We hardly think that a provision that a slave should never be emancipated,
or that he should be kept in chains for life, would be sustained. A provision
that the slave should not be carried out of the State, or sold, and that on
the happening of either event he should be free, has been sustained. [Williams
v. Ash, 1 How, U. S. Rep. 1. 5 U. S. Dig. 792, s. 5.]
The remainder of Blair's account of Roman slavery is devoted rather to
the practices of masters than the state of the law itself. Surely the writer
is not called upon to exhibit in the society of enlightened, republican and
Christian America, in the nineteenth century, a parallel to the atrocities
committed in pagan Rome, under the sceptre of the persecuting Cæsars,
when the amphitheatre was the favourite resort of the most refined of her
citizens, as well as the great "school of morals" for the multitude.
A few references only will show, as far as we desire to show,
how much safer it is now to trust man with absolute power over his fellow,
than it was then.
IX. While slaves turned the handmill they were generally chained, and had
a broad wooden collar, to prevent them from eating the grain. The FURCA, which in
later language means a gibbet, was, in older dialect,
used to denote a wooden fork or collar, which was made to bear upon their
shoulders, or around their necks, as a mark of disgrace, as much as an uneasy
The reader has already seen in Chapter V., that this instrument of degradation
has been in use in our own day, in certain of the slave States, under the
express sanction and protection of statute laws; although the material is
different, and the construction doubtless improved by modern ingenuity.
X. Fetters and chains were much used for punishment or restraint, and were,
in some instances, worn by slaves during life, through the sole authority
of the master. Porters at the gates of the rich were generally chained. Field-labourers
worked for the most part in irons posterior to the first ages of the republic.
The legislature of South Carolina specially sanctions the same practices,
by excepting them in the "protective enactment," which inflicts the
penalty of one hundred pounds "in case any person shall wilfully cut out the tongue,"&
c., of a slave, "or shall inflict any other
cruel punishment other than by whipping or beating
with a horse-whip, cowskin, switch, or small stick, or
by putting irons on, or confining or imprisoning such slave."
XI. Some persons made it their business to catch runaway slaves.
That such a profession, constituted by the highest legislative authority
in the nation, and rendered respectable by the commendation expressed or implied
of statesmen and divines, and of newspapers political and religious, exists
in our midst, especially in the free States, is a
fact which is, day by day, making itself too apparent to need testimony. The
matter seems, however, to be managed in a more perfectly open and business-like
manner in the State of Alabama than elsewhere. Mr. Jay cites the following
advertisement from the Sumpter County (Ala.) Whig:--
The undersigned having bought the entire pack of Negro Dogs (of the Hay
and Allen Stock), he now proposes to catch runaway negroes. His charges will
be Three Dollars per day for hunting, and Fifteen Dollars for catching a runaway.
He resides three and one-half miles north of Livingston, near the lower Jones
WILLIAM GAMBEL. Nov. 6, 1845. 6m.
The following is copied, verbatim et literatim,
from the Dadeville (Ala.) Banner, of November, 1852.
The Dadeville Banner is "devoted to politics, literature, education, agriculture, &c."
The undersigned having an excellent pack of Hounds, for trailing and catching
runaway slaves, informs the public that his prices in future will be as follows
for such services:--
For each day employed in hunting or trailing
For catching each slave
For going over ten miles and catching slaves
If sent for, the above prices will be exacted in cash. The subscriber resides
one mile and a half south of Dadeville, Ala.
B. BLACK. Dadeville, Sept. 1, 1852.
XII. The runaway, when taken, was severely punished by authority of the
master, or by the judge at his desire; sometimes with crucifixion, amputation
of a foot, or by being sent to fight as a gladiator with wild beasts; but
most frequently by being branded on the brow with letters indicative of his
That severe punishment would be the lot of the recaptured runaway, every
one would suppose, from the "absolute power" of the master to inflict it.
That it is inflicted
in many cases, it is equally easy and needless to prove. The peculiar forms
of punishment mentioned above are now very much out of vogue, but the following
advertisement by Mr. Micajah Ricks, in the Raleigh
(N. C.) Standard of July 18th, 1838, shows that something
of classic taste in torture still lingers in our degenerate days.
Run away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off,
I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make
the letter M.
It is charming to notice the naïf betrayal
of literary pride on the part of Mr. Ricks. He did not wish that letter M
to be taken as a specimen of what he could do in the way of writing. The creature
would not hold still, and he fears the M may be illegible.
The above is only one of a long list of advertisements of maimed, cropped,
and branded negroes, in the book of Mr. Weld, entitled American Slavery as It is, p. 77.
XIII. Cruel masters sometimes hired torturers by profession, or had such
persons in their establishments, to assist them in punishing their slaves.
The noses and ears, and teeth of slaves, were often in danger from an enraged
owner; and sometimes the eyes of a great offender were put out. Crucifixion
was very frequently made the fate of a wretched slave for a trifling misconduct,
or from mere caprice.
For justification of such practices as these, we refer again to
that horrible list of maimed and mutilated men, advertised by slaveholders
themselves, in Weld's American Slavery as It is, p.
77. We recall the reader's attention to the evidence of the monster Kephart,
given in Part I. As to crucifixion, we presume that there are wretches whose
religious scruples would deter them from this particular form of torture,
who would not hesitate to inflict equal cruelties by other means; as the Greek
pirate, during a massacre in the season of Lent, was conscience-striken at
having tasted a drop of blood. We presume?--Let any one but read again,
if he can, the sickening details of that twelve hours' torture of Souther's
slave, and say how much more merciful is American slavery than Roman.
The last item in Blair's description of Roman slavery is the following:--
By a decree passed by the Senate, if a master was murdered when his slaves
might possibly have aided him, all his household within reach were held as
implicated, and deserving of death; and Tacitus relates an instance in which
a family of four hundred were all executed.
To this alone, of all the atrocities of the slavery of old heathen Rome,
do we fail to find a parallel in the slavery of the United States of America.
There are other respects, in which American legislation has reached a refinement
in tyranny of which the despots of those early days never conceived. The following
is the language of Gibbon:--
Hope, the best comfort of our imperfect condition, was not denied to the
Roman slave; and if he had any opportunity of rendering himself either useful
or agreeable, he might very naturally expect that the diligence and fidelity
of a few years would be rewarded with the inestimable gift of freedom.
* * *
Without destroying the distinction of ranks, a distant prospect of freedom
and honours was presented even to those whom pride and prejudice almost disdained
to number among the human species.
The youths of promising genius were instructed in the arts and sciences,
and their price was ascertained by the degree of their skill and talents.
Almost every profession, either liberal or mechanical, might be found in the
household of an opulent senator.
The following chapter will show how "the best comfort" which
Gibbon knew for human adversity is taken away from the American slave; how
he is denied the commonest privileges of education and mental improvement,
and how the whole tendency of the unhappy system, under which he is in bondage,
is to take from him the consolations of religion itself, and to degrade him
from our common humanity, and common brotherhood with the Son of God.