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185719th Century: Antebellum Laws

Regulating Freedom, Restricting Citizenship

Black and white illustration of Dred Scott and family

Illustration of Dred Scott and Family

A warrant handwritten in brown ink on a single sheet of folded off-white paper calling for the creation of a slave patrol in Loudon County, Virginia. The warrant is addressed to a group of men and the main text reads "Whereas information has been given to me as Justice of the Peace for the County assd that unlawful assembly of slaves & other parties are frequently held in this neighborhood contrary to the act of assembly in such case made & provided these are therefore to require you to Patrol the said Neighborhood & to search for & apprehend all disorderly persons & bring them before us or some other Justice of the Peace to be dealt with as the Law directs & further to report your proceedings to the next Court to be held for this County."  Warrant ends "Given under my hand this 2d day of Sept 1826" but is unsigned. Individuals named in the warrant include Thomas Moss, Captain Joseph Vanpelt, Nelson Wilson, Hezekiah Ellis, William Hoskinson, Henry Witten, David Allen, Matthew Lee, and Levi Green. There are numerous smudges, particularly around the end of the sheet. There is a stain along the top right edge and a number of stains on the back of the sheet. There are small tears in the creases at the top edge and the creased corners in the center of the paper have loss.

Raising a Slave Patrol

In the decades before the Civil War, both local and national laws maintained slavery. Locally, enslaved and free African Americans were controlled by Slave Codes and Black Codes. Slave Codes prohibited enslaved people from reading, writing, marrying, and even practicing their faith. Black Codes across the country required that free Black residents regularly register their freedom by paying a fee and securing the testimony of a white person to vouch for their credibility. Through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the federal government required free citizens to return fugitive enslaved Black people back to their enslavers. Black people defied and challenged these laws.

Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1847, claiming that living in free states while hired out by his enslaver made him a free man. Dred Scott v. Sanford was tried in the United States Supreme Court in 1857. In the majority decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney cited the Constitution and wrote that Black people had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that they were reduced to slavery for [their] benefit. An enslaved person was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.

The Dred Scott decision also determined that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was illegal, and therefore slavery could spread across the expanding nation. This ruling, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Black Codes and Slave Codes, and other antebellum laws like the Three-Fifths Compromise built on legal precedents set during the colonial era and in the nation’s founding documents.

A warrant handwritten in brown ink on a single sheet of folded off-white paper calling for the creation of a slave patrol in Loudon County, Virginia. The warrant is addressed to a group of men and the main text reads "Whereas information has been given to me as Justice of the Peace for the County assd that unlawful assembly of slaves & other parties are frequently held in this neighborhood contrary to the act of assembly in such case made & provided these are therefore to require you to Patrol the said Neighborhood & to search for & apprehend all disorderly persons & bring them before us or some other Justice of the Peace to be dealt with as the Law directs & further to report your proceedings to the next Court to be held for this County."  Warrant ends "Given under my hand this 2d day of Sept 1826" but is unsigned. Individuals named in the warrant include Thomas Moss, Captain Joseph Vanpelt, Nelson Wilson, Hezekiah Ellis, William Hoskinson, Henry Witten, David Allen, Matthew Lee, and Levi Green. There are numerous smudges, particularly around the end of the sheet. There is a stain along the top right edge and a number of stains on the back of the sheet. There are small tears in the creases at the top edge and the creased corners in the center of the paper have loss.

Raising a Slave Patrol