American Legal History

Status, Class and Patriarchy

Interpreting the colonial societies and their legal orders.


Access materials on the [Course Readings] page.


Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), pp. 295-387

George Lee Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts (1968), chapters 8 to 12

The Charter of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay (1628).

Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of the Massachusets (1648)


Notes and Materials


Virginia and the Transition to Slave Labor I wonder to what extent the various class structures in Virginia impacted the need for a new slave labor force, in addition to the practical agriculture issues of needing more bodies for the intensely hard work. The readings noted that more people became what we might call middle class as the boom years of tobacco went on, creating an even further dearth in the limited free/indentured labor force. More people were needed, and slaves could never move up the socio-economic ladder, ensuring a continuity that could not be found in free/indentured labor?

As Prof. Moglen said, the trigger wasn't so much a lack of available indentured servants but a change in the economic conditions (if labor survives, permanent labor is cheaper. if labor becomes free, it's dangerous). What I thought was interesting is that that's exactly what I was taught back in elementary school. Third grade (or somewhere there abouts), we were told that the original laborers were all Europeans lucky to survive their 7 years of servitude and that slave labor was only 'an economic response'. Given the host of complications that aren't touched upon (Columbus on the NA mainland?), even at the time I found it interesting that our teacher focused on it. I still believe the intent is to remove/soften the visceral sense of racism. What our teacher didn't mention was Morgan's piece about how the property of the slaves was turned over to the poor of the parish in 1705 (strengthening the white v. black dynamic while weakening the poor v. rich one). Seems a telling omission.

MA and Amending the Legal Code I find it interesting that the early law codes of Massachusetts were so detailed and were revised so often. The frequent revision of law, especially, makes me wonder if there was push-back from the ordinary people who advocated for a written code of laws (as opposed to magistrate decisions on a case-by-case basis) after various iterations, or if the lawmakers themselves felt the need for revisions as the community developed and new issues arose in order to protect themselves from further threat?

Organization around Family and God It seems that Massachusetts relied a great deal on the family unit to keep order and maintain adherence to both Biblical and secular law (recognizing the overlaps between the two at times), even with respect to servants. In this sense, I am reminded of commandments from Exodus and Deuteronomy concerning obligations of keeping the Sabbath: "But the seventh day is a sabbath to the L-rd your G-d; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns." (Exodus) "But the seventh day is a sabbath to the L-rd your G-d; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you." (Deuteronomy) Might this kind of sense of an obligation to "train up" and supervise servants (and slaves to the extent that they were eventually present) while making sure that they too behaved in a G-dly manner have accounted for the different outlook towards them as both individuals and as a labor force working to some extent alongside the owner/master when compared to the situation described in Virginia?

"Correction" of Servants/Slaves The readings discussing Virginia's transition from a servant to a slave based labor force and the change in perception of African slaves as outside the human world (compared to the earlier implied sense of perhaps servants/slaves "versus" owners/masters) interested me in terms of how the labor needs bled into the social structure and laws governing slavery. For example, the idea that a slave already had the ultimate sentence given (life slavery) made the threat of extended service used for indentured servants ineffective - leading in part to the need for more urgently physical harshness and abuse for misconduct. They were seen as outside of the Christian communion (to the limited sense that such existed in Virginia) and could be dealt with more summarily under the law? Yet the Massachusetts laws focused more on correction and repentance for wrongful behavior - for both servants/slaves and free people alike. Might this be because (from what I gather from the reading), those in indentured servitude/slaves were still often seen as Christian (or potentially so), even though they would likely not have been church members or among the elect? In other words, the dichotomy perhaps was in part Christian/communion member within the accepted community "versus" savage? I don't think that they would easily have let someone into their closely guarded and constrained community who would not at least seem to adhere to the basic principles. As such, the masters and community as a whole might have had an obligation to impose correction in stages with varying degrees of physical force to offer chances to change the misconduct and, as the readings suggest, they spent much time in explanation of the wrongfulness of the behavior as well public displays of the correction for the rest of the community in order afford individuals the chance to bring themselves in line with the G-dly rules as interpreted by the community leaders for practical living before the ultimate (and often physically harsh) sentence and/or banishment was carried out? I was struck by the observation that the laws referred specifically to servants in only a few places, and those included laws of a more back-and-forth relationship (such as the one about a servant whose master engaged in severe mistreatment of him and the reporting to take place). The servant seemed encompassed in, and subject to, the general laws rather than strictly a set of his/her own? I wonder, could this view of community as encompassing the bound labor force might also account for the attempt at “limits” and definition of torture in the laws; under the community’s expectations, there was a limit to the harshness of punishment, even though we might see what they had as sufficiently physically harsh already to be “torture” in our 21st century world.

-- RitaTrivedi - 16 Sep 2011


I hope you don't mind I've edited your formatting a bit and created some subtitles.


Webs Webs

r8 - 29 Aug 2012 - 21:49:48 - IanSullivan
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