Codes of bondage

February 5, 2013 11:00 AM

Nick Marinello

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.

Vernon Palmer

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.’”

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu