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  • Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas
  • Greta de Jong
Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. By Sally E. Hadden (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Slave Patrols is a valuable resource for scholars seeking to learn more about some neglected aspects of southern (and American) history. Drawing on a variety of sources including legislation, court cases, letters, diaries, and slave narratives, Sally Hadden provides a finely detailed account of the origins, functions, impact, and legacy of slave patrols, with the aim of enhancing our understanding of the influence that racism had on the development of law enforcement in the United States and its emphasis on the monitoring and controlling of black behavior by white Americans.

Hadden begins by outlining colonial attempts to regulate slavery through laws that set restrictions on enslaved people’s actions and required all settlers to assist in enforcing the slave codes. Under these systems people who encountered slaves traveling without passes were expected to return them to their owners, and in South Carolina landowners were obliged to punish unknown slaves who wandered onto their plantations. The ineffectiveness of this approach and fears raised by slave rebellions led eventually to the creation of formal slave patrols composed of white men appointed specifically for the task. South Carolina and Virginia drew slave patrollers from militia lists, while North Carolina relied on county courts to appoint local committees responsible for establishing patrols in their communities. Hadden notes that, contrary to the popular belief among contemporaries and historians that slave patrols were comprised mostly of poor white men, patrollers were drawn from all social classes. This finding mirrors the conclusions of recent studies of twentieth-century lynch mobs, demonstrating that elite white southerners shared responsibility for violence against African Americans throughout the region’s history.

Formed primarily to offset the threat of insurrection, slave patrollers’ duties included searching slave dwellings to guard against the acquisition of weapons, breaking up slave gatherings, and patrolling roads to capture potential runaways, as well as being on the lookout for suspicious activity. Frequent escapes, the [End Page 220] development of maroon colonies, and three major slave revolts in Virginia and South Carolina in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggest that patrols were not always as vigilant as their communities would have liked them to be. Many white southerners complained of rowdy, drunken patrols that were not doing their jobs, and called for reform. Yet even in the wake of serious crises like the Stono rebellion of 1739, legislatures were unable to significantly improve the system. Hadden attributes this failure to obstacles presented by the South’s tradition of individualism and conceptions of honor that viewed any kind of government intervention with suspicion. Some planters resented the power of slave patrols to intrude on their lands and the implication that they were incapable of controlling their slaves. In addition, the compulsion to serve on patrols and control mechanisms like the pass system imposed burdens on slaveowners that could seem unreasonably onerous. Many planters either deliberately or inadvertently obstructed the work of patrols through actions such as preventing them from entering their property or neglecting to write passes for their slaves.

Slave patrols might have had a reputation for laxity among white southerners, but Hadden shows that African Americans had a very different view. Hadden uses the oral interviews with former slaves conducted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s to demonstrate the real impact that patrols had on the lives of black southerners. Both enslaved and free black people found their movements restricted and were subject to questioning, searches, or other forms of harassment at any time. Patrollers had the authority to punish wayward slaves by whipping or beating them, and even people who had not broken any law might be subject to mistreatment. The terrifying and arbitrary violence of slave patrols made them a legitimate source of fear among black southerners. Yet, as with other aspects of the slave system, patrols were not unchallenged by those they sought to control. African Americans developed various methods of resistance such as meeting in woods and swamps that could not be reached by patrols, stringing vines...

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pp. 220-221
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