Many white southerners believed that slavery would surely be abolished after years of debate in Congress; that if they were to hold onto slavery, they needed only wait until Union victory in civil war (after all, slaves would never win!). But Prigg gave them the opportunity to immediately and easily go on the offensive.
To begin to answer this question, it is essential to understand the background of the so-called “twenty negro law” of 1858.
Among other things, it was designed to make sure that the southern white population were not taxed for the support of negroes. In general, there were four main reasons for this:
First, the southern states were poor in comparison to New England states. They had less resources and less money in general.
The cost of supporting slaves made it difficult for them to develop a strong economy in a relatively short time span in history (about a century).
Thus, they could not afford a stronger economy in which private citizens saw that they would have to pay taxes for the upkeep of slaves.
What were the provisions of twenty negro law :
1. A slave owner is exempted from paying tax for any negro over the age of twenty. This includes taxes on inherited slaves.
2. If a slave owner dies, his estate would still be exempt from taxes on any slaves older than twenty.
3. Slaves under the age of twenty are still taxable if they have taxable value that exceeds that of their master’s property in the county where he is taxed.
4. The twenty year old mark was based on the assumption that a male slave would become less economically productive after this time period.
The tax-exemptions of the “twenty negro law” were particularly important to southern whites who believed that they should not have to pay for maintaining slaves.
Before the war, many white southerners had thought that slavery would eventually be abolished because of debates on it in Congress.
The South’s inability to compete with the North on an economic level also contributed to their loss of faith in abolition.
The “twenty negro law” allowed slave owners easy access to new slaves without having them pay taxes on them.
Thus, they could continue slave ownership even though they no longer had faith in abolition. It was this type of tax-exemption that enraged many white southerners during the civil war.
The repeal of the “twenty negro law”
The repeal of the “twenty negro law” was only accomplished with the passage of the Confiscation Act of 1861.
The Confiscation Act, which was passed by the Congress in July, 1862, also allowed for southern states to pay out money to slave owners who relinquished their slaves to federal soldiers.
This money could then be used to pay off southern debts that were owed to non-cotton producing regions by developing cotton production.
The Confiscation Act also ended any prerogative an existing state government had in protecting slavery; it prevented future Confederate States from creating laws that would protect slavery at the expense of federal interests (i.e., taxation).
This way the Congress prevented the Southern states from protecting slavery by using their constitutional rights.
This was important to the North because they wanted to annex the Confederate states, and then expel slaves from them.
Therefore, it is clear that, through taxes and their amendment of laws, the federal government had a part in ending slavery in America.
The use of taxes and later taxation throughout history helped free many slaves; for this reason we do not need to view taxes as something evil.
Thus, it is clear that the “twenty negro law” allowed for many white southerners to keep slaves after they had lost faith in abolition through Congress. This is why they were enraged when the tax was repealed.
The slave house tax
Another tax added on some properties was called the “slave house tax”, which was imposed by law from 1859-1862.
The tax was calculated by dividing the wages of the enslaved workers by the number of slaves on their property.
When this number exceeded twenty, they would be taxed. This way, the tax on the property was not based on how many slaves were there, but rather on how much money they made.
This tax thus became more of a tax on the land rather than the workers themselves.
Because it was based on wages rather than slaves, some owners could avoid paying it at all by not including their enslaved workers in their household count. Additionally, after 1859 some states stopped collecting this tax altogether.