In his new book on Louisiana slave law, Vernon Palmer calls Louisiana’s effort to incorporate slavery into the Civil Law a “strange science”: It produced the rigorous and elaborate set of rules regulating bondage but wove them into a code otherwise devoted to freedom.
In his book Through the Codes Darkly, law professor Vernon Palmer examines how Louisiana incorporated slavery into its civil law. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)
While Through the Codes Darkly
is first and foremost a legal history and analysis of slave law in Louisiana, it also is to some extent a contemplation of the society that enacted those laws.
“This was the first effort and the last effort in modern history to integrate slavery into a European-style civil code,” says Palmer
, the Thomas Pickles Professor of Law. “Bringing in Spanish and Roman law, it was a very deep science.” In incorporating slave law into the 1808 Digest of Orleans, Louisiana developed — unlike the rest of the slave holding states of the Deep South— a “coherent, consistent, almost learned jurisprudence on the subject of slavery,” says Palmer.
There’s no end to the irony, he adds.
“Here you have [the Digest of Orleans] developed from the French Civil Code of 1804. This was a code of enlightenment incorporating all the gains of the French Revolution: freedom of property, abolition of social distinctions, the breaking up of the power of the Church and so forth. And then here comes a code with all those things in it, but only for white Louisianians. For the black slaves it was only a code of darkness, a code of bondage.”
As to why Louisiana wished to create this “exceptional” kind of civil code, Palmer speculates that “they were making a statement that ‘this is our way of life. This is something important to us. We’re not just regulating field labor; slavery is very deep in our culture.’”