Slaves, Freedmen, and Laws



24 January 2014

When we set out to study slaves and freedmen in antebellum America, we learn quickly the importance of knowing the laws. Not the suppositions we hear right and left, not the broad generalizations we "learn" from the media, but the actual text of state and local laws for the time and place.

Studies of voting rights, marriage rights, taxation, and the right to own property are all common fare. But what about the right to bear arms? The right to own arms? The right to hunt in order to put food on the family table?

The records we use do sometimes fly in the face of sterotypes, particular in the Lower South and other regions of America that began as French or Spanish colonies. Surviving court files from those regimes, with surprising frequency, speak of slaves who were skilled hunters and were allowed to carry guns. That custom created a significant culture clash as waves of British Americans, from the North as well as the Upper South, moved into the Lower South after the Revolution. Reared in the mindset that had produced the U.S. Uniform Militia Act of 1792—which denied free men of color the right to serve in the militia because that would allow them to  be armed—the newcomers sought to impose gun restrictions not only upon slaves but also upon the many tens of thousands of free people of color in the Gulf States and the Mississippi Valley.1 offers an enlightening table of laws on this subject, source-cited, together with a modicum of background perspective.

      1. For example, see Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills, The Forgotten People: Cane River's Creoles of Color, revised edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013), 220–25.