Slave patrols and the origins of the police in America

The following articles and videos below are taken from various research websites from around the internet documenting the history of policing in America. Please read and watch them and comment below!

Documentary on the origins of the police in America



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Sunday, September 9, 1739: the scene in Stono, South Carolina was a white man’s nightmare come true.
Armed with knives and guns and drunk, 60 slaves set out for freedom in Florida, singing, dancing and brutally murdering more than two dozen whites along the way.

Known now as the Stono Rebellion, the revolt was the first major rebellion by slaves in South Carolina and the deadliest one on American soil in the 18th Century.

While whites held the power in the slave-owning South, by the late 1700s they were beginning to be vastly outnumbered by slaves, brought over by the boatload to make plantations profitable. Rather than reveling in dominion over their subjects, white South Carolinians were paranoid, fearing for their lives as blacks began to outnumber them almost two to one. The Stono Rebellion brought the point home.

In response to the Stono incident, South Carolina became the first of the three slave-owning states to adopt a comprehensive slave code. The new code officially established slave patrols or “paddyrollers,” groups of white men charged though civic duty to keep slaves down and keep revolts from happening. They’re the subject of the new book Slave Patrols (Harvard University Press) by Florida State historian Sally Hadden (Ph.D. Harvard), which studies the roots, rules, procedures, progress, disintegration and legacy of Southern slave patrols in Virginia and the Carolinas in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is perhaps the most all-encompassing view yet of a long-overlooked chapter of Southern history.

The paucity of research done on slave patrols is seemingly out of proportion to the large role they played in the perpetuation of the slavery system in the South. Every slave-owning state had active, established patrols and, though they had many functions within the community, they had one basic job—to act as the first line of defense against a slave rebellion. They caught runaway slaves, enforced slave codes, discouraged any large gathering of blacks and generally perpetuated the atmosphere of fear that kept the slaves in line.

In other words, this is no Steel Magnolias. Hollywood filmmakers wouldn’t recognize the insecure, hostile South of 1740, where slave patrols amounted to, in Hadden’s words, “an unequivocal manifestation of white fear.”

“Paranoia is part of the concern that drives the formation of slave patrols and part of the reason why you’d hear so many stories of revolts,” Hadden said. “It’s an idea that originated with (historian) Stephen Channing, and it’s one of the ideas that I believe is accurate about that world.”

Hadden effectively traces that paranoia and hostility as it turns to bitterness in the aftermath of the Civil War, after the patrols had been legally disbanded yet turned into something even darker.

“The seemingly unrestricted brutality of patrols would find its mirror image during Reconstruction in the extralegal activities of vigilante groups that operated outside virtually all social restrictions,” Hadden writes. “White Southerners visited retribution upon freedmen who had little means of protecting themselves from the next incarnation of slave patrols: the Ku Klux Klan.”

While there are no doubts that the slave patrols led directly to the Klan and other brutal vigilante groups, Hadden is uncomfortable offering the practices of slave patrols as the sole explanation for current tensions between police and the black community.

“When I talk about slave patrollers, I always hear, ‘So this is about the origins of white-on-black violence, right, like Rodney King getting beaten in L.A.?'” Hadden said. “Some people will read this with an eye towards what it says about the 21st century, but what I make very clear is that, while we still have racial problems, the patrols are just the origins, not the answers. My purpose was to locate the historical roots of Southern law enforcement and race-based violence.”

Others are more at ease with the connection. In a Chicago Tribune editorial from 2000, writer Salim Muwakkil drew a line directly from slave patrols to Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant fired on 41 times by police.

“Complexion has influenced the focus of law enforcement from this nation’s very beginnings; the first organized police forces, according to police historian William Geller, were the varied slave patrols,” Muwakkil wrote. “Policing in this country has always had the dual purpose of maintaining social order and enforcing the racial hierarchy.”

Hadden prefers to let history speak for itself, rather than push it towards any moralizing end. She’s wary of the so-called “Goldhagen Thesis,” she says, a reference to Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Vintage, 1997). Goldhagen, a Harvard historian, argues that under extraordinary circumstances, individuals have no independent will to act freely and are just manipulated by larger historical forces.

“That book is about how ordinary Germans were drawn into the exterminating process, and Goldhagen takes that extra step to say that it’s a predisposition of the Germans going way back in history,” Hadden said. “Flash forward to what I’m working on, and one of the things about Goldhagen’s thesis is that it denies free will, which I won’t do. We inherit a culture that has racism, ageism and sexism, but I never want to deny the capacity of free will.”

Hadden, a lifelong student of Southern history, first stumbled upon a reference to “paddyrollers” while in graduate school. She found a curious passage in historian Edward Ayers’ acclaimed Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South. It didn’t sound familiar, but seemed like it should.

“He had a paragraph or two talking about slave patrollers and I was really struck by it,” Hadden recalled recently. “Because I grew up in the South, I was born here, I’m very interested in Southern history, I’ve read many books about slavery…but I’d never heard about slave patrols before.”

Her curiosity piqued, Hadden went looking for more material on the patrols. She met with disappointing results.

“I kept finding the same sentence from Ayers, the same paragraph recrafted and rephrased. Nobody had anything more than a sentence to say about the patrols. There was very little background and almost no context.”

Slave patrols were populated in the beginning by people from all walks of life in the South, from wealthy land- and slave-owning aristocrats on down. Service in the patrols was required by law and refusal to perform patrol duty met with stiff fines. As such, Hadden writes, “Historians have routinely assumed that since patrollers did not stop every runaway, it matters little what patrols did; their uneven enforcement of the law must have diminished their impact on Southern history and slavery. As a result, the number of prominent slave histories that fail to mention even the existence of patrollers is startling. And when histories do include them, patrollers generally appear as little more than straw men, paraded for their inadequacies and little else.”

To take a modern analogy, if you wanted to go out today and find out what ordinary people think about the local fire department, and your sources are letters and e-mails and transcripts, you’d have a hard time, because the only time that they really make news is when something goes wrong,” she explained. “It’s a civic obligation. People haven’t written more than a sentence or two about them. There’s a paucity of information.”

But certainly, given their inextricable links with nearly all communities in the antebellum South, the slave patrols are worthy of far more research.

“Slave patrols were an important part of the entire slave system,” offers Winthrop Jordan, the William F. Winter Professor at the University of Mississippi, in introductory text to Hadden’s book. Jordan notes that the book illuminates new aspects of slave patrols. “This is the first time that slave patrols have received undivided attention as to their origins and actual implementation.”

Luck plays a small role, too. Hadden randomly picked the archives in Raleigh, N.C., as a place to begin, and started sifting through the mountains of paper filed under ‘miscellaneous.’ She found material on the first day. “I was very fortunate,” Hadden admitted. “I could very easily have gone to another archive, dug for a week, found nothing, and called the whole thing off.”

She also stumbled upon a surprising bit of living history. Armed with a laptop and digging through archives, she looked up to find a research breakthrough in the form of an elderly gentleman who walked up and asked her what she was working on. She told him.

“So this man said, ‘My mama used to sing about those paddyrollers,’ and he starts singing this song about paddyrollers right there in the archives,” Hadden recalls. “I had him sing as many verses as he could remember.”

Hadden eventually discovered five versions of the song, including one by the popular ’20s string band Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, each bearing a horribly non-PC title that this magazine is forbidden to print.

Hadden’s interest in things Southern comes naturally. She was born in Charlotte and lived in Chapel Hill and Wilmington before heading off to college at the University of North Carolina.

“I’ve got very real Southern roots— Krispy Kreme and bar-b-que,” she says.

It was at UNC that Hadden decided to make a career out of legal history, so after earning her undergraduate degree, she headed to Harvard, where she earned her law degree (1989) and history PhD (1993). She came to Florida State University in 1995, after teaching at the University of Toledo from 1993-95. Throughout that time, Hadden continued to research, re-write and re-think her doctoral thesis on slave patrols.

“The book grows out of the dissertation, though it’s heavily revised from where the paper started out,” Hadden said. “There were new documents and new books came out by other historians that made me re-think it. The argument became more sophisticated. I wouldn’t say it went a completely new direction but it gained by having me think about it longer.”

Colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, first purchased African slaves from Dutch traders in 1619, just a dozen years after the colony’s founding. As the number of slaves grew, so did the white community’s need to police them. Borrowing liberally from Barbadian slave laws, colonists adopted slave patrols as a formal institution by the middle of the 18th century. These were among the first police forces in the colonies.

Perhaps due to the lack of scholarship on the subject, the average slave patroller has largely been a caricature. When mentioned at all, slave patrollers are drawn as poor, slaveless, sadistic whites of very low social rank. In fact, the dominant image is of Marks and Loker, the supremely evil slave-catchers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

But, as Hadden’s research reveals, “Slave patrols between 1704 and 1721 frequently included men of superior social status, not just poor slaveless whites.” And in a two-county study in Virginia, Hadden finds that “‘Poor whites’ does not describe the status of 18th century slave patrollers …Typically, these men headed their own households. …Half or more of all patrollers owned slaves, usually one to five slaves.”

It’s detail like this that makes Slave Patrols a key work in the field, said legal historian Peter Hoffer, research professor at the University of Georgia: “There are other books on the paddyrollers’—and they are mentioned in just about every book on antebellum slavery—but the accounts are anecdotal, rarely include the pre-1800 South, and have nowhere near the detail and balance of Hadden’s book. Indeed, in the former works, the patrols are always viewed as the evil arm of a vicious police state. But they are important because they show how negligent that police state was, how much agency the slaves had, and how negotiation rather than mere oppression was the rule.”



A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Published on January 07, 2014
The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions. The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.

Policing was not the only social institution enmeshed in slavery. Slavery was fully institutionalized in the American economic and legal order with laws being enacted at both the state and national divisions of government. Virginia, for example, enacted more than 130 slave statutes between 1689 and 1865. Slavery and the abuse of people of color, however, was not merely a southern affair as many have been taught to believe. Connecticut, New York and other colonies enacted laws to criminalize and control slaves. Congress also passed fugitive Slave Laws, laws allowing the detention and return of escaped slaves, in 1793 and 1850. As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) remark, “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”

The legacy of slavery and racism did not end after the Civil War. In fact it can be argued that extreme violence against people of color became even worse with the rise of vigilante groups who resisted Reconstruction. Because vigilantes, by definition, have no external restraints, lynch mobs had a justified reputation for hanging minorities first and asking questions later. Because of its tradition of slavery, which rested on the racist rationalization that Blacks were sub-human, America had a long and shameful history of mistreating people of color, long after the end of the Civil War. Perhaps the most infamous American vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan started in the 1860s, was notorious for assaulting and lynching Black men for transgressions that would not be considered crimes at all, had a White man committed them. Lynching occurred across the entire county not just in the South. Finally, in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which prohibited state actors from violating the Civil Rights of all citizens in part because of law enforcements’ involvement with the infamous group. This legislation, however, did not stem the tide of racial or ethnic abuse that persisted well into the 1960s.

Though having white skin did not prevent discrimination in America, being White undoubtedly made it easier for ethnic minorities to assimilate into the mainstream of America. The additional burden of racism has made that transition much more difficult for those whose skin is black, brown, red, or yellow. In no small part because of the tradition of slavery, Blacks have long been targets of abuse. The use of patrols to capture runaway slaves was one of the precursors of formal police forces, especially in the South. This disastrous legacy persisted as an element of the police role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In some cases, police harassment simply meant people of African descent were more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police, while at the other extreme, they have suffered beatings, and even murder, at the hands of White police. Questions still arise today about the disproportionately high numbers of people of African descent killed, beaten, and arrested by police in major urban cities of America.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


National Constables Association (1995). Constable. In W. G. Bailey (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Police Science (2nd ed., pp. 114–114). New York, NY: Garland Press.

Turner, K. B. , Giacopassi , D. , & Vandiver , M. (2006) . Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17: (1), 181–195.




Police: History – Early Policing In Colonial America

Read more: Police: History – Early Policing In Colonial America – Colonies, Law, Slave, and Patrols – JRank Articles

The development of law enforcement in colonial America was similar to that of England during the same time period. Law enforcement in colonial America was considered a local responsibility. As in England, the colonies established a system of night watch to guard cities against fire, crime, and disorder. In addition to night watch systems, there were sheriffs appointed by the governor and constables elected by the people. These individuals were responsible for maintaining order and providing other services. Nalla and Newman have described the following as problems plaguing colonial cities that were considered the responsibility of police: controlling slaves and Indians; maintaining order; regulating specialized functions such as selling in the market and delivering goods; maintaining health and sanitation; managing pests and other animals; ensuring the orderly use of streets by vehicles; controlling liquor, gambling, vice, and weapons; and keeping watch for fires.

While night watch groups were established in the northern colonies, groups of white men organized into slave patrols in the southern colonies. These slave patrols were responsible for controlling, returning, and punishing runaway slaves. The slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order in the southern colonies. These slave patrols are generally considered to be the first “modern” police organizations in this country. In 1837, Charleston, South Carolina, had a slave patrol with over one hundred officers, which was far larger than any northern city police force at that time (Walker, 1999).

Policing on the western frontier varied widely. According to Langworthy and Travis, settlers originally from northern colonies created marshals and police forces similar to those in northern colonies, while settlers from southern colonies developed systems with sheriffs and posses. In many western settlements, however, there was no formal organized law enforcement. In these areas, groups of vigilantes were formed by volunteer citizens to combat any threat to the order of the settlements. These groups of self-appointed law enforcers had a significant influence on collective social norms, including the lack of respect for the law, which had been haphazardly enforced primarily through vigilante violence.

In the 1800s, changes in American society forced changes in law enforcement. Specifically, the processes of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration changed this country from a primarily homogenous, agrarian society to a heterogeneous, urban one. Citizens left rural areas and flocked to the cities in search of employment. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to reside in America. Unsanitary living conditions and poverty characterized American cities. The poor, predominantly immigrant urban areas were plagued with increases in crime and disorder. As a direct result, a series of riots occurred throughout the 1830s in numerous American cities. Many of these riots were the result of poor living conditions, poverty, and conflicts between ethnic groups. These riots directly illustrated the need for larger and better organized law enforcement. Both the watch systems in the north and the slave patrols in the south began to evolve into modern police organizations that were heavily influenced by modern departments developing in England during the same time (Walker, 1999).

Read more: Police: History – Early Policing In Colonial America – Colonies, Law, Slave, and Patrols – JRank Articles

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