Slave Codes of Tennessee

Margaret Vandiver, University of Memphis
David Giacopassi, The University of Memphis
Mazie S. Curley, University of ~ The Memphis

Tennessee, like other slave states, passed laws governing the lives of slaves and free blacks. The 1858 Slave Code contained extensive provisions concerning slave patrols, runaways, permits for slaves to move around, to assemble, and to carry weapons, as well as specifying criminal offenses and punishments. Tennessee law before the Civil War made two offenses capital for whites and 124 capital for slaves and free blacks. For non-capital crimes, slaves were frequently subject to corporal punishments such as whipping or confinement in the pillory. This paper explores the Tennessee Slave Codes in depth. We examine the statutes and their interpretation by the Tennessee Supreme Court in three major areas. First, we compare criminal offenses to which slaves and free blacks were liable. Secondly, we describe the laws that made some violent acts against slaves illegal, and discuss the exceptions to that protection, such as the exemption of whites from prosecution for killing a slave, in the act of resistance to his lawful owner or master, or, under moderate correction. Lastly, we explore the central irony of the Slave Codes, their treatment of slaves both as property and as persons with free will who could be held responsible for criminal actions.

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Updated 05/20/2006