Before America became independent, the law was one of the main factors that determined the kind of life that women lived and their subsequent experiences. Women lived in social systems which were purely patriarchal. Colonial America put more value on a woman’s ability to bear children and care for them than her ability to be of keen mind. These societies had limited power and autonomy for women. There were certain cultural and legal rules which demarcated boundaries as to how women were supposed to live. Women were neither allowed to vote nor buy property. At this time, the Protestant church was one of the main churches in America. In these churches, it was stressed that women were there to be seen and not to be heard and this was in accordance to the teachings of Saint Paul. Anne Hutchinson is an example of a woman getting into trouble, because of the perceived threat of her intellect (Berkin et al. 13).
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Native Americans were numbered around 7 million by the year 1500. In the dawn of the 16th century, the numbers declined greatly due to diseases which were introduced by the invading Europeans. The natives succumbed to the diseases in great numbers because they were not immunized. Mid 17th century, they were not exceeding 200,000. Although slavery was not allowed, they were taken by rival tribes, sold to French colonists to work as slaves in places like Canada or the West Indies. Slavery is defined as a system that is socio-economical in nature under which a certain class or race of people is forced to work or provide labor while being denied their personal freedom (Oates and Charles, 25). Others were killed in long war with the colonial masters.
In the beginning of the 18th century, half of the labor was provided by the African slaves while the rest was being provided by the Native Americans with the latter providing the Spanish farms or haciendas with agricultural labor. Native American and African slaves shared almost the same life. They lived in the same slave quarters, worked in the fields, had same food recipes, shared legends and myths and eventually became love stricken which led to intermarriages. Black male slaves, who married Native women, belonged to the woman’s clan. This led to the emergence of black Americans or the mulattos. Just like their parents, the offspring born in slavery were naturally slaves by birth.
Mid 1619, the first black or ‘negar’ slaves arrived in Jamestown aboard a Dutch vessel and were sold immediately (Berkin et al. 13). These slaves had been taken from the sugar plantations of South America. As time went by, there were several laws that were drafted to govern the slaves. These rules were restrictive and depriving. They included whipping and branding of the slaves and were soon adopted in other counties. These laws regarded slaves as movable property which could only be owned by the masters and that they should obey the master’s whim and call. By 1662, another tougher laws was introduced which stated that irrespective of the father’s legal status, the born child is also a slave. As the population grew and demanded for release from bondage, another law was passed in 1667 that stated that a slave was a slave and under servitude for the rest of his life and with this law, slavery became a legal and official institution.
Different places had different laws concerning slaves. In 1624, slaves in America’s Dutch colony were to be freed after serving for a certain time but their children were to remain slaves till when they became 25 years old. As the slave population grew, the colonist farmers passed a law that abolished the rights of a freed slave (Oates and Charles, 25). Now it became apparent that any slave who had been freed after serving for a certain number of years was still a slave together with their wives and children and this would continue for life. This law was passed after the colonists realized that slaves were becoming expensive. This meant that this institution could sustain itself as the population grew.
Slave trade made the slave merchants rich men because one slave was sold for approximately 30 dollars (Berkin et al. 210). These slaves worked in tobacco farms, gold mines and cotton farms which were owned by America’s colonial masters. In the Virginia colony, a law was passed to punish slaves who were captured while trying to escape slavery. They were branded and whoever assisted them was fined heavily.
The demand for miners and increased consumption of sugar, cotton and tobacco fueled the regular and increased demand for slaves. The African slave was the most preferred since they were immune to diseases like malaria and yellow fever when compared to the Native Americans and Europeans. They provided their colonial masters with skilled labor and were quite experienced in plantation agriculture.
In 1705, new laws enacted in Virginia displaced the old law that a child born to a slave is a slave irrespective of who the father is (Berkin et al. 217). This law held that children born by a slave female and a colonist male were more special than those who were born to parents who were both slaves. These children had marked roles in the farms. These new statutes ensured regulated sexuality and reproduction of slaves while at the same time ensuring the continuity of slavery and finally leading to the birth of racism. All marriages between slaves were not legal because slaves were not recognized as legal entities. The laws required that those slaves who commit any crime were to have a jury listen to their hearings after which they could be severely punished through hanging, branding, dismembering, burnt at stake or castrated (Berkin et al. 309).
The law rarely favored slaves. They had their own ‘silent’ rebellions and uprisings. The fear of these rebellions made the white colonists to declare regroupings of slaves illegal. The law also discouraged interracial marriages for instance if a white female married a black male slave; the latter was to remain a slave till he died.
The religious rebels were considered to be social outcasts. Some of these people practiced a form of animism or voo-doo which they had practiced their mother countries. However, when they tried to influence other people, they were to be punished by the law which could amount to persecution at times. The Dutch colonies of 1661 did not tolerate any religion (Hofstadter, 18). People who held religious views that were nonconformist were forcefully told to move to other places.
As more colonists entered America by1680, tolerance had to be observed because these colonists had different religions. This included the Roman Catholic Church believers, Lutherans, Evangelists and others. This resulted to an unwritten form of tolerance because everyone had to respect each other’s beliefs (Hofstadter, 18). In 1688, the Quakers were the first people to oppose slavery in America. Due to religious tolerance, they were allowed to hold their beliefs amid great opposition from the other religions. Opposition from the church against slavery finally led to the illegalization and destruction of the institution of slavery and the oppression of minor groups like Native Americans and addressed the issue of gender balance under which women were recognized.
Berkin, Carol, et al. Making America: A History of the United States.5th ed. MA. Massachusetts: Wadsworth Publishing, 2001.
Oates, Stephen, and Charles J. Errico. Portrait of America: Volume Two: From 1865. 8th ed. MA. Massachusetts: Wadsworth Publishing, 2002.
Hofstadter, Richard. American Political Traditions: And the Men Who Made it. NY. New York: Vintage, 1989