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William Penn abandoned English Civil Law when it applied to enslaved Africans. Pennsylvania laws regarding slaves placed an emphasis on maternal (i.e. Black female slave), and not paternal (i.e. potential White colonist) provenance for slave offspring. Thus, Quaker law-makers attempted to establish slavery in perpetuity in the colony. In Pennsylvania this principle was allowed and defended as being the custom over time and also because it was the law in other countries.

In 1786 the State’s Supreme Court reinforced the status quo when it declared that, the principles of maternal provenance for Black and Mulatto children was and always had been the law.

It should also be noted that many of the slaves in Delaware were bought in Maryland or Philadelphia and the political and legal patterns in Pennsylvania exerted influence on Delaware even after that colony had ceased to be subject to Pennsylvanian laws in 1704.

Prior to 1700 slaves on the West Bank shared some of the legal rights as Whites; e.g. ‘Peter’ was a slave indicted by Kent County Grand Jury on suspicion of murdering a White woman and was found not guilty in 1699). Prior to the 18th Century Blacks were not singled out for particularly harsh treatment nor, if the Black person was free, was there a ban on inter-race marriages; e.g. a free Black, John Johnson of Kent County married Elizabeth, who was White.

But, in early C18th Pennsylvanian passed laws (also passed in Delaware) to codify the position of Black slaves:

In 1700, because White owners did not want to prosecute their slaves – and lose their labour, a series of Acts, supported by William Penn, were passed by the Pennsylvania legislature establishing separate ‘negro courts’(1) for ‘serious crimes’ (the term ‘negro’ was often a synonym for ‘slave’). This was a response to the growing Black population in the colony. In 1704, Delaware was granted its own legislation and actually scrapped these courts – only to re-introduce them in 1726.


Blacks faced different punishments:

  • For murder, buggery, burglary or rape of a White woman the punishment was death
  • For attempted rape the punishment was castration
  • For robbery and stealing the punishment was whipping and the slave’s master had to make good the theft


The above law was repeated, except the punishment for attempted rape was whipping, branding, imprisonment and transportation and these same penalties were imposed for thefts of over £5. Theft valued under £5 meant whipping up to 39 lashes.

A further Law in 1705-06 forbid the mixture of races and inter-race marriage. For violations a White person could be fined £30, or sold as a servant for a period not exceeding 7 years.

A clergyman carrying out the marriage ceremony could be fined £100.

In Delaware ‘serious crimes’ included murder, manslaughter, buggery, robbery, rape and attempted rape. After 1726, slave masters were compensated two-thirds of the value of the slave put to death– this was a copy of the Pennsylvania Law of 1706. This compensation was paid by a court of two Justices of the Peace and six substantial freeholders. The compensation monies actually came from funds derived from a tax on imported slaves ~ what a vicious circle!

Traditionally the movement of slaves rested with their Pennsylvania owners. Because of complaints about Black people’s “tumultuous assemblies” a law was passed in 1705-06 stopping assembly of Blacks. No slave was allowed to go further than 10 miles without a leave of his master. The penalty was 10 lashes on the bare back. There was the same punishment for a slave who left his master’s home after 9pm or was found in a tippling house.

Also, Whites were forbidden to employ such slaves, or harbour, or shelter them (except in unseasonable weather). If they broke this law they faced a fine of 30 shillings for every 24 hours the slave was harboured. Blacks were also not allowed to gather in companies of more than 4 people.


 (1) Such special courts for slaves were common in English American colonies including New York.


  • PETER H WOOD http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_H._Wood, Black Majority, Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion, WW Norton & Co Inc., 1974.
  • WILLIAM H WILLIAMS, Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865, Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997.