Slaves and Agency

After having read the Georgia Slave Codes, the question that begs is whether or not a slave was considered an agent under the law. The question seems to require two diametrically opposing answers.

First, in the traditional sense of the agent-principal relationship, it would seem that slaves were agents to their masters under Georgia’s law. They were obligated to act on behalf of their master in most everything they did. In this sense – wherein they act on behalf – they seem to have been agents.

When one takes into account O.W.Holmes’ take on agency, the question becomes less clear. In Holmes’ interpretation, the principal is responsible for the acts committed on his behalf by his agent. In point of fact, Georgia’s laws seem to mete this point out. However, the reality of it was that masters of slaves held almost universal immunity where their slaves were concerned.

Entering into a principal-agent relationship implies the formation of a contractual obligation between the involved parties. This would then assume that slaves had legal capacity to enter into a contract (as the common law does not recognize contracts under duress as legitimate). However, with laws banning slave literacy and trading among and with slaves, it seems unlikely they were thought to have capacity. One might argue that in many states, Georgia included, slaves could appear as witnesses in court; competency as a witness would surely amount to competency as a contractual party. This argument is, however, untenable when one considers that their ability to bear witness was severely limited, and sometimes compulsory.

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