Slavery did not magically appear overnight as a fully developed system threaded through the cultures and economies of the states it came to dominate. Nor did governments impose it by fiat. But a slave society needed systems to govern slavery, most especially a legal framework. Hence states passed slave codes.
Writing for their British audience, the Crafts go beyond telling us about auctions and the destruction of families. They cast their net wide, taking extracts from those codes to show that they tell not only their own story, but part of the story of four million of others. That story also includes what white America did to them and those millions, or stood by and allowed a portion of itself to do.
In their native Georgia, the state constitution read:
Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offense had been committed on a free white person, and on the like proof, except in case of insurrection of such slave, and unless SUCH DEATH SHOULD HAPPEN BY ACCIDENT IN GIVING SUCH SLAVE MODERATE CORRECTION. [Emphasis in original.]
Moderate correction included whipping and beating. I can’t imagine many cases where an owner would lack plausible deniability if passion moved him. Accidents happen. The Crafts required no imagination at all:
I have known slaves to be beaten to death, but as they died under “moderate correction,” it was quite lawful; and of course the murderers were not interfered with.
But one need not own the slave in order to commit the murder:
If any slave, who shall be out of the house or plantation where such slave shall live, or shall be usually employed, or without some white person in company with such slave, shall REFUSE TO SUBMIT to undergo the examination of ANY WHITE person, (let him ever be so drunk or crazy), it shall be lawful for such white person to pursue, apprehend, and moderately correct such slave; and if such slave shall assault and strike such a white person, such slave may be LAWFULLY KILLED.
This provision has obvious salience for runaways like the Crafts. Getting caught on the run might mean “moderate correction” and “an accident” even before their captors returned them to their owners. The murder of slaves on the run certainly happened, at least at times, in moments of passion. In practical terms, the law sanctioned it at the discretion of whoever found and caught them.
“Provided always,” says the law, “that such striking be not done by the command and in the defence of the person or property of the owner, or other such person having the government of such slave; in which case the slave shall be wholly excused.
According to this law, if a slave, by the direction of his overseer, strike a white person who is beating said overseer’s pig, “the slave shall be wholly excused.” But, should the bondman, of his own accord, fight to defend his wife, or should his terrified daughter instinctively raise her hand and strike the wretch who attempts to violate her chastity, he or she shall, saith the model republican law, suffer death.
The law comprehends slaves as property, and allows them to defend the property of their owners, unless the threat comes to property in the form of their own lives. There it demands they stand idly by, unless their master authorizes otherwise, and watch the beating, rape, and murder of loved ones. Should they find themselves receiving the wrath of a white person, it demanded they meekly submit.