By the 1600s, Africans were being transported to America as slaves, and eventually the African slave trade became a major part of the economy in North America. The governing bodies in North American jurisdictions developed laws that were referred to as slave codes. These laws were used to indicate the status of the slaves in each jurisdiction, the rights of their masters, and acceptable treatment of those bound in slavery. In most cases, the codes made slaves property rather than human beings. This meant their masters owned them, much in the same way they might own a horse, a home, or a piece of furniture.
Slaves codes typically left the slaves with few, if any, legal rights. In most cases, a slave had no legal right to own property. He could not sign or enter into a contract, and his testimony, if given in a case that involved Caucasians, was usually inadmissible in a court of law. These laws even made it illegal for a slave to defend himself against bodily harm. If a Caucasian person attacked a slave, the slave could not hit him back, even to save his own life. If he did so, he might be punished with whipping, prison time, or even with death.
Often, a jurisdiction's slave codes governed the very things people take for granted today, such as the right to learn to read or write. It was typically illegal for slaves to learn to read or write, and they could not hold meetings or assemblies. There was often an exception to that rule, however. They might be allowed to assemble if a Caucasian was present. Slave codes typically even governed where a slave was allowed to go; in most cases, it was illegal for a slave to leave his master's property without his master's permission.
There were also codes that made slave marriages illegal. Since slaves were not allowed to enter into legal contracts, marriage was prohibited because it is a type of contract. Some slaves married in secret. They did so at their own peril, however, as the punishment for this activity could be very harsh.
Interestingly, slave codes often included laws for freed slaves. For example, the codes in some places required freed slaves to leave the jurisdiction in which they had been enslaved. Additionally, slave codes often applied to people who were not of African descent but were still bound in slavery. For example, Indians and people of other races were sometimes enslaved as well.