Prosecution vs. Progress: Slave Courts in the 19th-century
    by Emma Hitchcock

Throughout the mid 19th-century, slave states contemplated whether unlimited power should be granted to masters, allowing them to assault and punish slaves with no legal repercussions. In Virginia the cumulative effect of the slave codes was that slaves were “expressly recognized as property and not at all as persons having civil rights in any respect whatever”(1). Despite this general consensus, many individual cases proved to be points of debate. The Minor Family Papers at UVA’s Special Collections Library show that John B. Minor, the patriarch of the family and a distinguished lawyer at the University of Virginia, often received letters from his fellow southerners about legal questions they were facing. The judicial decisions made at the time exhibited the morals and beliefs of the majority of white Southerners: economic prosperity should be put above the humanity of slaves.

As an influential jurist, John B. Minor served as a legal consultant to many of his students, friends, and family members. Minor completed his undergraduate studies at Kenyon College and then received his Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Virginia. In 1845 he was elected the only Professor of Law at UVA, and became a recognized authority on his primary subjects of study, Common and Statute Law. He contributed many works to the legal community, the most influential being Institutes of Common and Statute Law.  Given the complexities of the law of Southern slavery, it is not surprising that Minor received many letters asking for his consideration. Although the majority of Minor’s responses to such letters have not been identified, the Minor Papers prove to be an important reference for understanding legal opinions and decisions during the mid-19th-century (6).

One of the most revealing letters John B. Minor received was from L.J. Bell, written on April 7, 1856. Bell was a UVA student in the 1840’s who later wrote with questions about the legality of slave abuse. Bell starts the letter with his initial inquiry: “Can the Common Law Offense of Assault and Battery be committed upon a Slave, the property of Another?” This question appears in dozens of court cases at the time, many of which Bell employs as evidence to support his opinion that “such an Indictment can not be sustained in Virginia”(1).

L.J. Bell points to a few specific cases throughout his letter. Most referenced are Souther v. Commonwealth 48 Va. 673, 680-81 (Va. 1851) and Commonwealth v. Turner - Virginia, 1827 (5 Rand. 678). These, along with State v. Mann - North Carolina, 1829 (13 N.C. 263), were particularly influential within courts at this time, as they set a precedent for how to handle future cases surrounding the assault of a slave.
At the time of Commonwealth v. Turner, the Virginia supreme court had already outlawed murder of enslaved people by their masters. This 1827 case went one step further, questioning the legality of non-lethal abuse.  It was determined that particularly egregious slave abuse cases could be penalized by the courts.  Many of the judges, including most importantly Justice William Brockenbrough, believed that slaves needed more protection under the law (2). At first glance this seems like a progressive opinion--however Justice Brockenbrough’s motive wasn’t moral obligation, but economic interest. He argued that slaves were more likely to rebel or would be less productive workers if they had no protection whatsoever (5).

The outcome of Souther v. Commonwealth was similar, but the justification was different. This case dealt with a master, Simeon Souther, who beat his slave so sadistically that he was accused of 15 counts of murder. He tried to fight his conviction by stating that he while beating his slave he never intended to kill him (7). This argument was grounded in the law which stated that beating a slave was legal, while murdering a slave was illegal (9). The court eventually found Souther guilty, invoking Commonwealth v. Turner and the Session Acts of 1847-8 to prove excessive cruelty was legal provided it did not result in the death of a slave:

“It is the policy of the law in respect to the relation of master and slave, and for the sake of securing proper subordination and obedience on the part of the slave, to protect the master from prosecution in all such cases, even if the whipping and punishment be malicious, cruel and excessive. But in so inflicting punishment for the sake of punishment, the owner of the slave acts at his peril; and if death ensues in consequence of  such punishment, the relation of master and slave affords no ground of excuse or palliation. The principles of the common law in relation to homicide, apply to his case, without qualification or exception; and according to those principles, the act of the prisoner, in the case under consideration, amounted to murder. Upon this point we are unanimous" (7).

L.J. Bell refers to both of these cases in his letter, but doesn’t discuss State v. Mann, arguably the most important case of its time. The 1829 ruling found defendant John Mann innocent despite the fact that he brutally beat and shot a rented slave named Lydia. Judge Thomas Ruffin, notorious in North Carolina legal history, ruled that “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect,” confirming the terrible vulnerability of slaves and the law’s emphasis on protecting masters (4).

These three cases are all examples of the same offense, yet are important in their differences. Bell’s letter to Minor invokes what historian Peter Kolchin called “the dualism of antebellum Southern law, as an agency of both repression and protection of slaves.” Kolchin importantly notes that “Repression inevitably came first.” In each case the judge maintained a sympathetic, paternalistic outward appearance. Upon making his decree, Judge Ruffin referred to his concerns regarding the “protection” and “comfort” of the slave. He could not “but lament when such cases as the present are brought into judgment” (8). However, such statements were a cover for his true intentions. For the most part, Southern judges at this time didn’t have humanity in mind and neither did the majority of white Virginians. The law makes clear the intentions of the state, and those who supported them were malicious despite their false sympathy— profit always came before moral considerations. The rest of Virginian citizens, whether they fostered the same beliefs or not, benefitted from this system of oppression, and therefore felt no need to change it. If Judge Ruffin and his peers felt any speck of benevolence for the accusers case then they would have instituted statutes prohibiting cruel and unusual slave punishment (4).

L.J. Bell’s letter is important not just for its content, but as a symbol of the time. Judicial systems continue to be seen as the moral compass of a state or country and can have a large influence on their citizens. The court rulings, discussed by Bell in his letter, even had profound relevance on UVA grounds.  In 1856, the same year that Bell wrote his letter to Minor, a student named Noble Noland was acquitted after he confessed to beating hotelkeeper Miss Terrell’s ten-year-old slave. During his testimony, Noland stated “whenever a servant is insolent to me, I will take upon myself the right of punishing him without the consent of his master." He claimed his actions were "not only tolerated by society, but with proper qualifications may be defended on the  ground of the necessity of maintaining due subordination in this class of persons” (11).

The control of the court resided in wealthy plantation owners and slave masters,  whose opinions were based in the same principle: economic interest and the rights of the master always come before the life of a slave. Slave laws emphasized that slavery involved not just social dehumanization, but legal repression. As shown in L.J. Bell’s letter to John B. Minor, every conviction was calculated to uphold white supremacy among upper class southerners, preserve enslaver's property values, and perpetuate the plantation economy (4).


1) Bell, L J. “L.J. Bell to John B. Minor Transcript.” Received by John B. Minor, 7 Apr. 1856.

2) Commonwealth v. Turner - Virginia, 1827 (5 Rand. 678)

3)Fede, Andrew. “Legitimized Violent Slave Abuse in the American South, 1619-1865: A Case Study of Law and Social Change in Six Southern States.” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Apr., 1985), Pp. 93-150, Oxford University Press,

4)Fede, Andrew. People Without Rights (Routledge Revivals): An Interpretation of the Fundamentals of the Law of Slavery in the U.S. South. Routledge, 2012.

5) “3.2.3 Old South (1787-1831): Slave Law in the Old South.” State Legal History,

6) The Papers of John B. Minor, 1845-1893, MSS 79-8, Special Collections, University of Virginia Law Library.

7) Souther v. Commonwealth, 48 Va. 673 (Va. 1851)

8) State v. Mann - North Carolina, 1829 (13 N.C. 263)

9) Supreme Court of Appeals, Virginia. Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia. D. Bottom, Superintendent of Public Print, 1889.

10) Waldrep, Christopher, and Donald G. Nieman. Local Matters: Race, Crime, and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century South. Univ Of Georgia Press, 2011.

11) Wolfe, Brendan. "Slavery at the University of Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Jul. 2019.