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Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas

Author(s):Hadden, Sally E.
Reviewer(s):Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers

Published by EH.NET (July 2002)

Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the

Carolinas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. xii + 340 pp. $35

(cloth), ISBN: 0-674-00470-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, William C. Bark National Fellow,

Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

The slave patrols of the antebellum South have long remained a gaping hole in

the scholarly literature on U.S. slavery. Nearly every authority has recognized

their existence and acknowledged their importance. But until now, no single

book-length study has been devoted solely to this institution. The best

discussions consisted of fairly brief sections in the works of John Hope

Franklin, Howell M. Henry, Leslie Howard Owens, Anthony Scott, Kenneth Stampp,

and Peter H. Wood. What little had been written, moreover, tended to be more

concerned with the patrol’s impact on the slaves rather than its impact on free

whites or on law enforcement generally. This is why Sally E. Hadden’s new book,

based on a Harvard dissertation done under Bernard Bailyn, is such a valuable

and noteworthy contribution.

Slave Patrols, in its six chapters and epilogue, has mined an array of

sources to provide a detailed portrait of this institution in Virginia, North

Carolina, and South Carolina. The first chapter explores the slave patrol’s

origins, the second its organization and administration, the third its

personnel, the fourth and fifth its operations, during periods of both

tranquility and crisis, and the sixth, its demise during the Civil War.

Hadden’s epilogue looks at the extent to which the slave patrol’s legacy

endured through the postwar Ku Klux Klan and other southern vigilante and

police groups.

Slave patrols, rather than being desultory or inadequate, turn out to be one of

the chief ways that the southern states enforced their peculiar institution.

The patrols apprehended runaways, monitored the rigid pass requirements for

blacks traversing the countryside, broke up large gatherings and assemblies of

blacks, visited and searched slave quarters randomly, inflicted impromptu

punishments, and as occasion arose, suppressed insurrections. The patrollers

generally made their rounds at night, with their activity and regularity

differing according to time and place. And patrol duty was often compulsory for

most able-bodied white males. Some professions were exempt, but otherwise

avoiding duty required paying a fine or hiring a substitute.

The patrols inspired well-justified fear on the part of black slaves. The

author quotes W. L. Bost, a former slave from western North Carolina who was

interviewed by the WPA in 1937, as reporting that “the paddyrollers they keep

close watch on the pore niggers so they have no chance to do anything or go

anywhere. They jes’ like policemen, only worser” (p. 71). Patrollers, however,

did face some social and legal checks on how harshly they behaved, because

masters did not take kindly to excessive or unnecessary damage to their human


One of Hadden’s most intriguing discoveries is variation in the patrol’s

organization. The South Carolina and Virginia patrols were directly linked with

the compulsory state militias. Militia officials would select patrollers from

each district’s rolls to serve for designated periods. The North Carolina

patrol, in contrast, was distinct from the militia. That state vested patrol

powers in county courts and later court-appointed patrol committees. North

Carolina also paid patrollers and provided them with other positive incentives,

as did Virginia, whereas South Carolina did not. Municipalities provided for

their own independent urban slave patrols that became increasingly prominent

over time in all three states.

Hadden is the first to give us any detailed knowledge of who actually manned

the slave patrols. The tithable (tax) lists for two Virginia counties, Norfolk

and Amelia, identify those who served before and during the American

Revolution, and there is similar data from Perquimans County, North Carolina,

for 1810 and 1860. These records overturn the observation of at least some

scholars that poor whites filled patrol ranks almost exclusively. In all these

records, those owning one or more slaves constitute at least half or more of

patrol personnel. This suggests that the burden of patrols was somewhat evenly

shared, with slaveholders sometimes over-represented and sometimes

under-represented relative to total households. Hadden does conclude that, as

the institution evolved from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, relative

participation begin to shift toward more non-slaveholders and smaller

slaveholders, although her evidence for this is more anecdotal than


When a scholar sheds much-needed light on a hitherto neglected topic, it is

churlish to complain about the nooks and crannies she did not illuminate to the

reviewer’s satisfaction. Nonetheless, the economist in me cannot but wish that

Hadden had given greater attention to the degree of coercion versus voluntarism,

which would reveal much about how the patrols were ultimately financed. Her

discussion of patrol fines is intriguingly sparse. My own study of slave patrol

statutes during the 1850s finds that every slave state outside of Delaware

provided for the system, and that only in Kentucky and Missouri was service

purely voluntary. Every other southern state imposed a fine for failure to

serve that varied from $2 to $20. Only a few of those also mandated salaries

for patrollers.

Were these fines high enough to create a tax-in-kind that conscripted all but

the wealthiest white southern males? Were they only nominally enforced, making

patrol duty then like jury duty today? Or did they operate more like a monetary

tax, in which most of those selected for duty either paid the fine or hired a

substitute? Answers would tell us a great deal about the socialization of

slavery’s enforcement costs and the resulting transfers within the southern

economy. Yet Hadden does not address these questions head on. Undoubtedly the

system varied. Some of her evidence implies that patrol duty could be truly

universal and compulsory; other passages from the book seem to hint that

patrollers were often a quasi-professional class of hirelings. What is clear

from her book is that southern towns and cities went furthest in the direction

of a tax-supported professional patrol. My own admittedly tentative impression

is that for the deep South, where the proportion of slaveholders was higher,

the mandatory features of the system predominated, whereas for the upper South,

with a smaller proportion of slaveholders, patrol personnel were more likely to

be hired. And this distinction may have very roughly coincided with that

between states using a militia-based patrol versus those using a court-based


But all this means is that we need further research to follow up on the trail

that Hadden has blazed. No longer can scholars dismiss or overlook the vital

role played by slave patrols. Having finally lifted this institution from

obscurity and misconception, Hadden’s book is must reading for anyone studying

the history of American slavery, the Old South, or U.S. law enforcement.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is the author of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free

Men: A History of the American Civil War (Chicago: Open Court, 1996).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century