You are here

Black Codes as Slavery Forever

There are some Confederate apologists who claim that “If there had been no Civil War, the South would have abolished slavery peaceably.” It would have simply died out because “paternalist planters would have arranged, over time, to emancipate their slaves in exchange for financial compensation.” 1H.W. Crocker, III, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Regnery Publishing, 2008) Chapter Fifteen. This is a curious book full of variously unfiltered bits of batshittery. It’s seriously next-level bonkers, even when held up against the other tripe published by Regnery.

Setting aside the several times that Lincoln offered The South compensated emancipation, as well as the numerous offers of pre-war compromises, let’s take a look at what the South might have done if there had been no war and they magically freed their slaves. It is an exercise in fan-fiction to pretend to know how history might have been different had an event as huge as the Civil War not taken place. Nevertheless, a clue as to how it might have turned out lays not in our imagination, but in the various Black Codes passed by Mississippi and South Carolina immediately following the war. In this short period of a year or so, we catch a glimpse of how the South wanted to treat the newly-freed black population and the reasons behind this treatment.

Selling a free black man to pay his fines in Florida. January 19, 1867.
Selling a free black man to pay his fines in Florida. January 19, 1867.

1866: The Return of the Rebels

Prior to the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment, the South was given the power to regulate how to deal with their freed slaves. Many fell back upon the Dred Scott decision, declining to view black people as capable of citizenship – as if the war itself had never taken place. Black suffrage was out of the question.

Since none in the black community could vote, and only whites could run, the Deep South elected Confederate veterans almost exclusively. While many had opposed secession at the start, almost all followed their states to war. Even Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice-President, wound up back in Washington, claiming his old seat in the Senate. On a local level, the majority of positions went to those who were blatantly pro-Confederate.

This was due, in large part, to President Andrew Johnson’s alignment with the planter class in the South. It was allowed to happen in hopes that the country could return as quickly as possible to how it used to be – minus slavery.

The absence of slavery, however, did not mean that black people had equal rights. This was as true in the South as it was the North. But unlike the North, the South had hundreds of thousands of newly-freed slaves to deal with. Allowing them to become citizens and vote, they realized, would certainly mean a politically progressive, Republican South. And so, as if the war never happened, they were determined to remain conservative Democrats, straying to the left only as far as Unionists Whigs might drag them. 2Eric Foner, Reconstruction; America’s Unfinished Revolution (Harper Collins – Perennial Classics, 1988) 196-197.

Preserving the ‘Power to Inflict’

It was not simply black voting rights of which Southern whites were fearful. In no way did they want to see the black man as an equal to themselves. For instance, Edmund Rhett, Jr., editor of the Charleston Mercury insisted that “the general interest both of the white man and the negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as Law can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as practicable.” 3Edmund Rhett, Jr., “Letter to Armistead Burt,” October 15, 1865. As printed in South Carolina; A History, Walter B. Edgar (University of South Carolina Press, 2008) 377.

In that spirit, both Mississippi and South Carolina did all they could to maintain the pre-war relationship between whites and blacks. In November of 1865, Mississippi laid down several laws to govern this.

An act dealing with the former master and servants, held that “said master or mistress shall have power to inflict such moderate corporeal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law: Provided, that in no case shall cruel or inhuman punishment be inflicted.” 4An Act to Be Entitled “An Act to Regulate the Relation of Master and Apprentice, as Relates to Freedmen, Free Negroes, and Mulattoes,”, Section 3, Approved November 22, 1865. As printed in A Political Manual for 1866 and 1867 Edward McPherson, ed. (Washington D.C., 1867) 29-30.

Bateman's National Picture shows a grand allegory of the reconciliation of North and South through the federal program of Reconstruction.
Bateman’s National Picture shows a grand allegory of the reconciliation of North and South through the federal program of Reconstruction.

The same act allowed for apprenticeships – basically indentured servitude – of young black people until the age of 21 for males and 18 for females. It also stated that if these servants ran away “said master or mistress may pursue and recapture said apprentice, and bring him or her before any justice of the peace of the country, whose duty it shall be to remand said apprentice to the service of his or her master or mistress.” If the runaway refused, he was taken “to the jail of said county” and held until he agrees to return. 5Ibid. Section 5. 30

And just like that, slavery, at least for many young black people, was reinstated in all but name. As for the rest, they would be dealt with by The Vagrant Act, passed a couple of days later.

It determined that any of the black people “with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time” were to be fined fifty dollars. This law didn’t just target blacks, but whites who associated with blacks. Determined to make equality illegal, Mississippi criminalized it.

“[A]ll white persons so assembling with freedman, free negroes, or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedman, free negroes, or mulattoes on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freedwoman, free negros or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants….” Instead of fifty dollars, whites would be fined two hundred dollars and possibly imprisoned for six months. Whites, it seems, could be jobless all they pleased, as long as they did not associate with black people. 6The Vagrant Act, November 24, 1865. As printed in A Political Manual for 1866 and 1867 Edward McPherson, ed. (Washington D.C., 1867) 30.

Finally, Mississippi passed their own Civil Rights Act, though it’s impossible to determine just which obtainable rights, if any, they were actually given. While black people were allowed to “sue and be sued,” and were granted the right to purchase land, they were forbidden to rent or lease land. They were graciously granted the right to marry, which was a boon indeed, unless it was interracial. If they did, they would be “deemed guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof, shall be confined in the State penitentiary for life.”

All black people were required to “have a lawful home or employment.” A license to work had to be obtained from the police or mayor, and signed by two other white people. If the black laborer left the job, he not only forfeited his pay for the entire year, but anybody “may arrest and carry back to his or her legal employer any freeman, free negro, or mulatto who shall have quit the service of his or her employer before the expiration of his or her term of service without good cause.” The person carrying back the laborer was to be rewarded five dollars, plus ten cents for each mile. These were better terms than one would have received for returning a fugitive slave.

Cartoon showing Andrew Johnson as the deceitful Iago who betrayed Othello, portrayed here as an African American Civil War veteran. Includes scenes of slave auction, whites attacking African Americans in Memphis and New Orleans, and "Copperhead" and "C.S.A." snakes wrapped around African American man while Andrew Johnson and others watch. Black Codes.
Cartoon showing Andrew Johnson as the deceitful Iago who betrayed Othello, portrayed here as an African American Civil War veteran. Includes scenes of slave auction, whites attacking African Americans in Memphis and New Orleans, and “Copperhead” and “C.S.A.” snakes wrapped around African American man while Andrew Johnson and others watch.

Additionally, if anyone attempted to persuade the laborer to leave his employer, or was to assist in running away, he would be fined up to two hundred dollars or serve two months in prison. 7An Act to Confer Civil Rights Upon Freedmen, November 25, 1865. As printed in A Political Manual for 1866 and 1867 Edward McPherson, ed. (Washington D.C., 1867) 31-32.

And just like that, Mississippi returned things to de facto slavery. For those who remained “free,” the state made sure that this liberty was not actual freedom. For instance, black people were disallowed to “keep or carry fire-arms or any kind, or any ammunition, dirk [dagger] or bowie knife.” If they were gathered together and seemed suspicious, if they preached the Gospel outside of a church or sold alcohol, they could be fined up to one hundred dollars or jailed for a month. If they could not pay within five days, “such person shall be hired out by the sheriff or other officer, as public outcry, to any white person who will pay said fine and costs, and take such convict for the shortest time.” 8“An Act to Punish Certain Offenses Therein Names, and for Other Purposes,” Approved November 29, 1865. As printed in A Political Manual for 1866 and 1867 Edward McPherson, ed. (Washington D.C., 1867) 32.

And More Black Codes: The Disease Spreads

South Carolina quickly followed suit, mirroring many of Mississippi’s vagrancy laws, including the legal capture and return of runaway laborers. Kentucky, a state that remained true to the United States, turned her face to the South, following the examples set. 9Douglas R. Egerton The Wars of Reconstruction (Bloomsbury Press, 2014) 181-184.

Louisiana required black people to be “in the regular service of some white person, or former owner.” 10Walter Lynnwood Flemming, Documentary History of Reconstruction, Vol. 1 (The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906) 280. Black people from Texas could choose their employers, but “when once chosen, they shall not be allowed to leave their place of employment, until the fulfillment of their contract, unless by consent of their employer, or on account of harsh treatment or breach of contract on the part of the employer.” Offenses such as talking back and swearing were punishable offenses. 11Contracts for Labor, November 1866. As printed in A Digest of the Laws of Texas, Fourth Edition – Volume II, George Washington Paschal, ed., (W.H. & O.H. Morrison, 1874) 1211.

As word of such laws spread into the North, the Radical Republicans protested, and even more moderate Northern whites saw this as cheating the system. Reports and newspapers demanded their repeal. The Federal government had to step in to ensure that such Black Codes were not enforced.

How the South Could Have Ended Slavery on Their Own

The idea that slavery would have died on its own is a fantasy. Had the United States simply allowed the slave states to secede, there’s no evidence whatsoever that they would have even entertained emancipation, what to speak of black citizenship or anything resembling equality. Even according to the recent Southern apologist publication mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Confederate States would have taken Cuba, and likely other territories, so that slavery could expand indefinitely, finally coming to an end at some indeterminable time in the future.

But perhaps slavery could have simply faded away. Maybe all the South had to do was let it end naturally. They could have started by dropping the fight to take slavery into the western territories. They could have accepted restrictions, accepted compensated emancipation, or taken up any of the compromises offered by the Federal government. But they didn’t. Unwilling to compromise on the issue of keeping human beings as property, they seceded, captured a slew of Federal arsenals, and fired upon Fort Sumter, all because they did not want slavery to be even limited a little, what to speak of ended.

The Black Codes enacted by Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and other states show us exactly how the former slave states wished to treat their free black population. They show us that if they could not have slavery in name, they would have it in practice and by all means necessary.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “Black Codes as Slavery Forever

  1. Before we condemn these people, which we rightly will, every should independently study what happened in Santa Domingo to best understand the mindset of this Generation. The thought of a sudden release of milions of slaves (with grievances) struck fear in the general population.

    1. That is certainly how they felt prior to the Civil War (and especially after the early 1830s). But they were horribly mistaken and paranoid. We can understand that they felt a certain way, but I think I’d stop well short of empathy.

      Also, if we’re talking about after the war, I’m not sure it applies. The war, with literal armies of black soldiers invading the South, their worst fears were realized. What they then wanted was for things to go back to the way they were.

Comments are closed.

Top