A Crime Against Property

Bloomberg BusinessweekJuly 06 - 13, 2020

A Crime Against Property
The laws against slave stealing continue to have societal implications today
By Stephen L. Carter

People were property in the plantation South. Everybody knows that. But let’s consider the logical consequences. Suppose you were to help an enslaved worker escape. What crime have you committed?

The answer is theft.

It makes a bizarre, painful sort of sense. Under the ideology of slavery, if you assist in an escape, you’ve taken what is legally someone else’s property. You’ve stolen chattel. In the eyes of a slaveholder, you’re not a noble freer of captives. You’re a petty criminal, no better than—for example—a cattle rustler. “Slave stealing,” the law called it, or, in some places, “man-stealing.” And the theory behind it has implications even today.

Theft of a slave was a crime against property, like burglary or arson. In many instances, those who helped free the enslaved were prosecuted simply for larceny. Penalties were harsh. A few states allowed the offender to be put to death, but those convicted were more commonly sentenced to lengthy stays in the dreadful penitentiaries of the day.

Southern states considered slave stealing “a despicable practice.” Small wonder. If a slave could be “enticed”—a common term at the time—into running away, then perhaps the slaveholder’s human property was ... well, human. But if a contradiction existed, the law ignored it.

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July 06 - 13, 2020