Laws Made of Whips: Slavery in Madison county, 1809-1832, Part III


We’ve already discussed the massive demographic changes that took place in Madison county during the early part of the nineteenth century and the ways in which the documents omitted the voices of nearly half the population. Now it is time to dig into the documents and find the winding threads that tell us about a people otherwise so cruelly edited out of local history. Namely, the laws enacted by city aldermen during a four year spurt. These laws came at a time when slaves and other people of color crested the demographic hill and became the majority in this county. As such, the move to control black autonomy tells us, in broad strokes, as much about black life prior to the 1830’s as it does about white paranoia. We shall supplement these laws with a few divorce cases that mention infidelity by white men with black women as the cause for divorce, because they highlight the unexpected economic autonomy of black women at the time.*

On July 7, 1828, the aldermen of Huntsville convened to correct what they saw as serious transgressions. The frontier atmosphere of the Mississippi Territory refused to dissipate. So now, more refined settlers tried to force their worldview on the people that hewed the logs and stole the hogs during Madison county’s infancy. Workmen violated the Sabbath, the people of Huntsville taxed churches and fired guns into the air on days other than the Fourth of July, illegal liquor permeated every aspect of life, whoever felt the urge urinated directly into the Big Spring, and the streets appeared to be in serious disrepair.** To this end they enacted a fairly harsh regimen of fines for free people and various levels of corporal punishment for slaves.

What is most interesting is not the regulations on chimneys nor the fact that they outlawed the card game known only as “rowley – powley” but what the laws regulating slaves revealed about slave life during the wilder, more rowley – powley infested frontier days.

Ordinance Number 21 expressly forbade slaves from hiring out their own time or from living in their own houses. The Aldermen made several comments within the ordinance which highlight the semi-autonomous economic conditions of slaves in Madison county. They pointed to the frequency with which enslaved persons decided their own schedules and work hours with the phrase, “whereas many persons are in the practice of permitting their slaves to hire their own time.” This alludes to us, the modern day reader, that although some 49 percent of the county consisted of enslaved peoples – Madison county had yet to fully transition to a full plantation style economy. Indeed, most enslaved peoples probably lived in smaller groups on a single farm than the massive chain-gang slavery of the popular imagination.*** The wording of Ordinance Number 21 reinforced the fact that enslaved peoples possessed the valuable resource of free time.

It also restricted enslaved peoples from that other signifier of limited economic freedom – their own space. Ordinance Number 21 indicates that although enslaved peoples formerly hired their own time, they also sometimes “[kept] houses for their own use and benefit,” the Aldermen alleged that said houses often turned into brothels or hideouts for “persons of ill fame.” To combat this they levied a series of fines against anyone that allowed their slaves to live separately from them.

To further investigate this phenomenon we turn from ordinances to divorces. There are three divorce cases that specifically mention adultery by a white man with a black woman. All of them prosecuted between 1816 and 1834. Two of the cases reveal enough about the closing of the frontier period and the hardening of the slave system to warrant mention here.

The first case presented the plea of Jenny Rame. She originally married William Rame around the age of 14. The specifics of their marriage are inconsequential, what we do know is that her husband abandoned her and moved into the “humble hovel of a negro and a slave,” before finally abandoning her to flee to Kentucky. Malinda Hutchins made similar claims about her husband Robert Hutchins who, “sought the gratification of his bestial propensities among the African race,” and deserted her to live with the unnamed black woman previously mentioned in the suit. The primary piece of evidence that emerges from these cases is that enslaved women sometimes possessed their own ‘humble hovels’ separate from the houses of whites. We can glean from the fact that the women engaged in, or were forced to engage in, relations with white men other than their enslaver that these were not simply slave shacks on the enslaver’s property but may have been separate residences that they rented.

Further evidence of a former autonomy reduced by mid-century paranoia emerges from Ordinance Number 29 and Ordinance Number 31. Ordinance Number 29 attempted to regulate those economic activities which took place on the Sabbath and as such made special mention that the Constable would confiscate the wares of enslaved peoples selling poultry and vegetables on Sunday. The Aldermen specifically targeted slaves, “as many now be in the habit of selling the articles as aforesaid on the sabbath,” suggesting that like hiring themselves out or renting property for their own use; enslaved people working for their own ends disrupted the reformer mindset of later white settlers.

Indeed, Ordinance Number 31 dealt directly with the movement of the enslaved. For the first time slaves from the county now needed to produce passes to stay overnight in the city of Huntsville, a requirement that prior to 1828 warranted little thought as they might simply rent a room or stay with a relative at their residence in town.

While the ordinances of 1828 seriously limited the economic and bodily autonomy of slaves, a similar push against the rights of free people of color did not come until 1831. In that year the city established a Night Watch with the express goal to put “in Jail, all coloured persons whether bond or free, whom they may find from their proper lodgings after the commencement of the watch.”

Night Watch began their patrols around ten p.m. and although the men appointed to it carried the discretion to leave free people of color alone “satisfied that they are upon business,” this in effect constituted a strict curfew for all non-whites living in Huntsville. Not only did the Night Watch patrol the city looking for freemen to harass, they also enjoyed the power “to enter any inclosures or houses where [there] maybe any unlawful assemblage of persons of colour.” Meaning that if more than a few freemen inhabited the same space it was the duty of the Night Watch to barge in and demand answers.

The final blow came with Ordinance Number 47. As of November 15, 1837, it became illegal for free people of color to hire out the services of the enslaved. Although we mentioned an exemption for a man named John Robinson in the previous installment, we also highlighted the fact that nobody else received one. This ordinance served to split the freemen from the enslaved community and aimed to end any fraternization between the two. Indeed, the very existence of free people of color directly undermined the rigid slave system that reformers sought to propagate in north Alabama and in their minds that meant the less contact between the groups, the better.

1809 to 1832 saw radical shifts in the demographics of Madison county and as a result radical shifts in the minds and propensities of the men who ran Huntsville, the county’s largest and most influential city. They sought to strangle the limited autonomy that enslaved people enjoyed prior to the 1830’s and make the population wholly dependent upon whites for shelter, food, and freedom of movement. As the attitudes of the city’s elites towards black economic participation stiffened so too did the penalties against any enslaved or free people caught outside of the ever-tightening snare. By the time that cotton monoculture arose as the primary, and in many ways only, economic activity of the Deep South; the black population of Madison county was already beholden to laws made of whips.

*surprisingly, there’s no divorce cases from Madison county that mention infidelity by white women with black men, which was not the case in upper south states like North Carolina and Virginia, where the majority of divorces pursued by poor white men mentioned that exact reason

**they also forbade “hawkers or pedlars” from entering the town without a license. it should be noted that pedlars traveled from town to town or farm to farm to sell whatever random items they possessed (often old pots and pans) and peddling was one of the only careers available to single women during this time period, other than sewing and prostitution.

***The 1860 Census reveals that although 1,117 families in Madison county owned slaves, only 10 families possessed over one hundred. Six hundred and sixty-three, or 59.35 percent, of families involved in slavery owned less than ten people. Which if anything highlights the quotidian horror of slavery. Unfortunately for historians, the 1860 census was the first to enumerate the exact number of slaveholders in each state. Fortunately for our nation it was the last census to have a slavery category.


“Huntsville City Aldermen Minutes I: 1828-1832,” p. 15-50;155-158.

University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center.

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