As personal property capable of independent action, slaves posed a unique dilemma to antebellum Florida’s ruling society. Statute law, which defined criminal behavior and affixed punishment for white criminals, could not be applied easily to the slaves lest whites compromise the hegemonic function of the law. A clear line of distinction between the two races was needed in order to maintain black subordination and race control. Had the ruling class consented to a body of laws that would have applied equally to both master and slave, that line might have been disconcertingly ambiguous. Any hint of equality under the law would have raised questions as to the viability of a slave-labor-based economy and the validity of the doctrine of white supremacy, the very institutions upon which southern society rested. In addition, these laws protected the delicate balance, the uneasy peace, if you will, struck between the races. In this regard, slave codes, as they came to be known, were seen as precautionary measures designed to forestall the likelihood of slave insurrection, petty thievery, miscegenation, escapes, and countless other infractions associated with the frustrations of an oppressed people. This essay examines the legal apparatus that white Floridians used to preserve their social, political, economic, and psychological hegemony. Clearly evident in both territorial and state statutes as well as the rulings of Florida’s highest court was an effort to maintain a balance in the law, to curtail the slaves’ ability to act independently while at the same time extending to the slave certain guarantees against maltreatment. Indeed, Florida’s slave code was designed to control both slaves and masters. Behind this dual function of the law lay the belief that the institution of slavery remained most secure when the bondsman was neither tempted with excessive liberties nor taunted by inhumane cruelties.
Thompson, Joseph Conan
"Toward a More Humane Oppression: Florida's Slave Codes, 1821-1861,"
Florida Historical Quarterly: Vol. 71:
3, Article 6.
Available at: https://stars.library.ucf.edu/fhq/vol71/iss3/6