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Partus sequitur ventrem, often abbreviated to partus, was a legal doctrine on slavery, derived from the Roman civil law; it held that the status of a child followed that of his or her mother. It, unlike much of the civil law, was widely adopted into the law of slavery in the United States. The Latin phrase literally means "that which is brought forth follows the womb."[1]


Prior to the adoption of this doctrine in the American colonies in the 1660s, English Common Law had held that a child's status was inherited from its father. The law provided that only livestock inherited status through the mother, therefore the 'partus doctrine could be said to have "set a psychological basis for popular culture’s seeing slaves as less than fully human" [2] - or at least to be an obvious symptom of this view.

The legal doctrine was embedded in legislation passed in 1662 by the Virginia House of Burgesses, and by other colonies soon after. It held that "all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother..."[3] It followed by several years the successful suit of Elizabeth Key, who gained freedom from slavery because her natural father was a free Englishman (and member of the House of Burgesses), and because he had arranged to have her baptized as Christian in the Church of England. Even under contemporary terms of indenture for illegitimate mixed-race children, Key had succeeded her term of service by several years.

The doctrine of partus gave cover to the power relationships by which white planters, their sons and overseers took advantage of enslaved women. Mixed-race children were thereby confined to slave quarters. The new law meant that slave-owners were not required to emancipate or legally acknowledge their illegitimate children by their slaves. It also meant that people whose ancestry was primarily European, and whose appearance may have been indistinguishable from that of free whites, could be held as slaves. Slaveholders did not have to support the children begotten upon slaves they forced, as was required in earlier years; they could also sell their issue and profit further.[4]

Sexual slavery was common throughout the slave-owning South and part of the patriarchal nature of the institution of slavery. Widowers sometimes took slave companions (as did both Thomas Jefferson and his father-in-law John Wayles before him); young men were likely to have affairs with young slave women before they married; female slaves were always at risk by adult white males. Southern diarist Mary Chesnut famously wrote that "This only I see: like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives their concubines, the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children -- every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in every body's household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think..." [5] Fanny Kemble, an English actress married to an American planter in antebellum years, also wrote about the mixed-race children fathered by elite white men, in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839[6], although she did not publish it until 1863.

See also


  1. ^ Definition, Powells, accessed
  2. ^ Frank W. Sweet, "Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule", Backintyme Essays, accessed 21 Apr 2009
  3. ^ Frank W. Sweet, "The Transition Period", Backintyme Essays, accessed 21 Apr 2009
  4. ^ *Baily, John (2003). The Lost German Slave Girl. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-921-9.  
  5. ^ "1861: This Day in Georgia History", compiled Ed Jackson and Charles Pou, University of Georgia
  6. ^ Fanny Kemble (1863). "Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839". Google Books. Retrieved December 20, 2009.  


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