Law and History Review


Peculiar Quarantines: The Seamen Acts and Regulatory Authority in the Antebellum South

Michael Schoeppner 

In 1824, the American schooner Fox sailed into Charleston harbor with seasoned mariner and Rhode Island native Amos Daley on board. When officials boarded the ship, they interrogated the captain and crew before cuffing Daley and hauling him off to the Charleston jail, where he remained until the Fox was set to leave harbor. Daley's detainment occurred because 16 months earlier the South Carolina General Assembly had enacted a statute barring the entrance of all free people of color into the state. Unlike other antebellum state statutes limiting black immigration, this law extended further, stretching to include in its prohibition maritime laborers aboard temporarily docked, commercial vessels. This particular section of the law was passed on the assumption that such sailors inspired slave insurrection and thereby posed a direct threat to the safety and welfare of the citizenry. Over the course of the next four decades, the states of North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas would join South Carolina in passing statutes, commonly referred to as the “Seamen Acts,” which limited the ingress of free black mariners. Amos Daley was only one of ~10,000 sailors directly affected by these particularly Southern regulations.


Michael Schoeppner is an American Council of Learned Societies postdoctoral instructor at the California Institute of Technology <>. The author thanks Elizabeth Dale, Jon Sensbach, Sally Hadden, and the anonymous reviewers at Law and History Review, as well as Martha Jones, Edlie Wong, and the other participants of the 2011 “We Must First Take Account” Conference on Race, Law, and History held at the University of Michigan Law School. Financial support was provided by a New Faculty Fellows Award from the American Council of Learned Societies, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.