The English development of the American colonies during the first four decades of the 17th century did not involve the legal institution of Negro slavery.[1] The English settlers had indentured servants during this time, but permanent Negro slavery did not legally exist. It was not until the tobacco colony of Virginia, in 1640, enacted a radical court order that helped develop the legal institution of Negro slavery throughout the Southern colonies in America.[2]


            The journey across the Atlantic Ocean was expensive. The less financially fortunate settlers arrived as indentured servants to their master.[3] Indentured servitude paid for the servant’s trip to America, but the servant had to honor the temporary contractual arrangement in order to get released as a free person.[4] An indentured servant was bound by a contract to serve their master for a set number of years, typically four to seven years or until the age of twenty-one.[5] While the servant was under contract, they “might be sold or conveyed from one master to another at any time” up to the expiration of the contract.[6] Indentured servitude was linked to the development of chattel slavery in America.[7]

            A shortage of labor and an abundance of land placed a high value on involuntary labor in the tobacco colony of Virginia.[8] The colony required cheap, permanent and tireless labor to harvest tobacco. Tobacco required labor intensive work, but not skilled work.[9] The Virginia colonists embarked upon creating an empire “upon smoke” and the requirement for permanent labor developed into a necessity for the colonists.[10]

       The first twenty Negroes were brought to Virginia in 1619 by a Dutch “man of warre.”[11] Whether these first twenty Negroes were enslaved on arrival is debated among historians[12]; however, it is clear that legal Negro slavery was not on the Virginia statute books when the first twenty Negroes arrived in the colony.[13] The first twenty Virginia Negroes were separated from white men by the use of the word “Negroes.”[14] For the next fifty years, Negroes slowly entered Virginia and the population gradually increased. A report released in 1649 indicated there were three hundred Negroes, about two percent, among Virginia’s population of fifteen thousand settlers.[15]In Virginia, an early census report further differentiated Negroes from white men by often neglecting to provide a personal name for the Negro.[16]

            The first reference of direct enslavement in America occurred in Virginia during 1640. During this time, the Virginia General Court decided a sentence for three male servants who secretly left their master and departed to Maryland.[17] Of theses three servants reclaimed back to Virginia were a Dutchman, a Scot and a Negro.[18] The Dutchman and the Scot were sentenced to serve their master for an additional year, and then further sentenced to serve the Virginia colony for an additional three years.[19] The third servant, a Negro named John Punch, was sentenced to serve “his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.”[20] According to historian Withrop D. Jordan, “no white servant in any English colony, so far is known, ever received a like sentence.”[21] There is evidence, by the Quarter Court in Massachusetts, which sentenced nearly a half dozen white offenders to slavery during June 1642; however, several of these offenders were released after a year which proved such efforts meaningless.[22]

            After 1640, notably in Virginia, a Negro was often sold for life and the sale also bonded any of their potential offspring to enslavement.[23] Virginia county court records indicated in 1646, Francis Pott sold a Negro woman and a boy to Stephen Charlton for the use of them “forever.”[24] During 1652, William Whittington sold to John Pott “one Negro girle named Jowan; aged about Ten yeares and with her Issue and produce during her (or either of them) for their Life tyme. And their Successors forever.”[25]  Perpetual enslavement was different than white servitude since white servants were released after they served their time and their progeny were not bonded to slavery like the Negro.[26]

            After 1660, Negro slavery was legally documented in the Virginia statute books.[27] Virginia successfully accomplished a new basis for the development of permanent chattel slavery that only pertained to the Negro. During the end of the seventeenth century, Negroes “began to flood” into Virginia.[28] To further regulate chattel slavery the Virginia Assembly during 1690, declared that stubborn and unruly Negroes must receive violent punishment. When a slave died during punishment, then the master was not found guilty of a felony “since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate.”[29] The last quarter of the 17th century developed the trend to treat Negroes more like property and less like men.[30] As such, slave owners began to send their slaves to the fields at younger ages, strip their chattels of their personal and civil freedoms, and further treated their human property as they saw fit.[31] To further keep Negroes separated from the white population, Virginia prohibited interracial affairs in 1691 and condemned miscegenation between blacks and whites.[32]

            During the first quarter of the 18th century, slaves entered the English colonies in vast amounts.[33] White men were thoroughly committed to the legal institution of slavery.[34] Negro slavery continued to legally develop without much opposition; in fact, the practice of slavery became entrenched in “traditions, folkways, and a whole style of life.”[35]

            In 1705, Virginia collected all of the legal statutes of a generation, such as the violent punishment of a Negro and the refusal of weapons to a Negro, and compiled them into a “slave code.”[36] Every slave state had a slave code.[37] The slave codes established property rights for those who owned Negro slaves, and further supported slave masters in the discipline of their slaves.[38] An important aspect of the slave code was to ensure that “slaves submit to their masters and respect all white men.”[39]

            Slaves were financial assets to both the large and small farmer. In Virginia during 1797, the price for a good-working field hand was $300. By 1803, the price increased to $400 for the same type of slave.[40] By the first decade of the 19th century, there were “more slaves in the United States than ever before.”[41] Despite the growing population of slaves in America, periods of agricultural decline affected slave prices.[42] It was common for farmers to make their slaves “last as long as possible” when their income from their crop sales were lower than the price of a slave.[43] When the income from a crop sale was substantial, according to a Southern planter in 1849, “the farmer could kill up and wear out one Negro to buy another.”[44]     

            As legal protection was stripped from the bondservant, the slave codes became more brutal. The Virginia code of 1849 implemented a fine and imprisonment for anyone who suggested “that owners have not right of property of their slaves.”[45] The slave codes regulated control of Negro slaves and provided instructions on how to regulate such property for the master. As Negro slavery continued to flourish, slave ownership became a status symbol in society.[46] During the time the United States increased its slave population, Declaration of Independence author and former United States President Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, “I have long since given up the expectation of any provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us.”[47]   






[1] Jordan, Winthrop D., White over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1968) pg. 44


[2] “Ibid.” pg. 75

[3] “Ibid.” pg. 47

[4] “Ibid.” pgs. 47-48

[5] “Ibid.” pg. 47

[6] “Ibid.” pgs. 47-48

[7] “Ibid.” pg. 47

[8] “Ibid.” pg. 72

[9] “Ibid.” pgs. 71-72

[10] “Ibid.”

[11] Stamp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Vintage Books Edition, December 1989) pg. 18

[12] Jordan, Winthrop D., pg. 44, 73

[13] “Ibid.”

[14] “Ibid.” pg. 73

[15] “Ibid.”

[16] “Ibid.”

[17] “Ibid.” pg. 75

[18] “Ibid.”

[19] “Ibid.”

[20] “Ibid.”

[21] “Ibid.”

[22] :Ibid.” pg. 68

[23] “Ibid.” pg. 75

[24] “Ibid.”

[25] “Ibid.”

[26] “Ibid.” pgs. 75, 80-81

[27] “Ibid.” pg. 44, 73

[28] “Ibid.” pg. 73

[29] “Ibid.” pg. 82

[30] “Ibid.”

[31] “Ibid.”

[32] “Ibid.” pg. 80

[33] “Ibid.” pg. 101

[34] “Ibid.”

[35] “Ibid.”

[36] “Ibid.” pgs. 80, 82

[37] Stamp, Kenneth M., pg. 206

[38] “Ibid.”

[39] “Ibid.” pg. 207

[40] Jordan, Winthrop pg. 321

[41] “Ibid.” pg. 349

[42] Stamp, Kenneth M., pg. 390

[43] “Ibid.” pg. 81

[44] “Ibid.”

[45] “Ibid.” pg. 211

[46] “Ibid.” pg. 385

[47] Jordan, Withrop D., pg. 347