“All servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not christians in their native country . . . shall be accounted and be slaves . . .”
Although the earliest Africans in Virginia had a status comparable to that of European indentured servants, a series of legal, economic, and social changes increasingly pushed these Virginians into complete slavery. Written from the mid-seventeenth through early eighteenth century, Virginia’s slave laws exemplify the slow but steady removal of rights from enslaved Africans in favor of more restrictive practices and harsh punishment that dehumanized and oppressed them. During the latter half of the seventeenth century, laws made it more difficult for enslaved Africans to obtain liberty and expanded the groups automatically considered enslaved. At the same time, new laws removed rights from black colonists, such as the right to marry English Virginians, the right to own property, and the right to own slaves themselves. Such changes broadened the divisions between white and black Virginians for centuries to come.
Some of the first Africans in continental North America were in the English colony of Virginia. A Dutch ship captured a group of some twenty Africans from a Spanish ship and brought them to the English colony of Jamestown in 1619. Unlike later African arrivals, these colonial immigrants were treated an indentured servants rather than chattel slaves. Thus, early Africans had the chance to obtain their liberty after a set period of labor and possibly become wealthy landowners who relied on unfree labor themselves in order to acquire large holdings under Virginia’s head-rights laws. Yet this early African population of Virginia was a minute one. Records indicate that fewer than twenty-five Africans lived in Virginia in 1625; by 1650, that number had risen to roughly three hundred. A decade later, that number had tripled. Yet this still represented a very small minority of the overall population, and Africans found their status lowered even as their numbers grew. In 1640, for example, a slaveholder successfully argued before the Virginia courts that his African indentured servant could be made to labor for life, a sign that the idea of lasting servitude had sway with the colonial government well before it was formalized in slave laws.
From this time onward, the move toward complete, lifelong slavery accelerated. During the 1640s, colonists purchased African servants as laborers for the duration of their lifetime, with the right to require any of those servants’ children to themselves work as unfree laborers for life. Beginning in the early 1660s, the Virginia legislature passed laws that formalized this practice. Legislation accepted that servants of African descent, unlike European servants, were liable to labor throughout their lifetimes and thus could not have their terms of service extended in punishment for various infractions. Other laws established the condition of slavery as hereditary and limited the ways by which Africans could obtain the freedom so readily granted fewer than fifty years before. Over the next several decades, more and more laws restricted the rights of Africans. At the same time, the European indentured servants, alongside whom they had once labored, declined greatly in number as the growth of the colonies and improvements in the English labor market spread more thinly the people willing to exchange a long period of labor for a passage across the Atlantic. An enslaved black underclass oppressed by the colonial government thus emerged.
The Virginia General Assembly was the first elected legislative body in the North American colonies. The General Assembly had roots in the earliest years of colonial settlement, when the royal charter issued to the Virginia Company allowed for the creation of a small representative body to legislate for the colony under the auspices of the governor. This body evolved over the next few decades as the colony came under direct royal control, becoming a bicameral legislature perhaps best known for its lower house, the popularly elected House of Burgesses, in 1643. This group comprised two representatives, or burgesses, from each of Virginia’s counties, and a handful of additional representatives from leading towns including Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Norfolk. By the end of the century, this had changed to include just one urban representative, from the colonial capital of Jamestown.
During the 1650s, the political authority of the House of Burgesses over the governor and upper house of the assembly grew. By the time of the passage of the first slave laws in the 1660s, the House of Burgesses was the dominant political force in Virginia. Because of an extended period during which no elections were held, the same burgesses served between 1661 and 1676, making the earlier collection of slave laws the work of one group of men. Although the overall power of the House of Burgesses had declined somewhat by 1705, the body remained an important legislative unit. Historians have suggested that it probably played a significant part in the revision of the colonial legal code that began in 1705 and included the creation of more slave laws.
Throughout its colonial existence, the Virginia General Assembly was largely made up of wealthy elites who sought to support the interests of their own social and economic class. After 1670, the right to vote for members of the House of Burgesses was limited to white adult male property holders. Many voters of this group were farmers with relatively small landholdings, but the representatives they chose were men of local power and influence. As a result of its composition, the House of Burgesses worked for the support of slavery as an integral force behind the colonial agricultural economy, which relied heavily on the production of tobacco as a cash crop.
The Virginia slave laws display the steady removal of civil rights and increasing racial divisions that marked the coalescence of colonial slavery during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The colony of Virginia first formally recognized the institution of slavery in 1661, and soon after, began making laws that drew more and more Africans into slavery, rather than indentured servitude. This was the first sign of the dehumanization of slaves that characterized later slave legislation. The legislation reproduced here exemplifies both the measures taken that expanded slavery throughout Virginia and the changing ideas about race, class, and servitude that affected the colony during this time. By the time of the passage of the 1705 laws, for example, racial divisions had become something to emphasize and enforce through the prohibition of interracial marriage. These slave codes thus not only affirmed colonial custom regarding the lifelong bondage of enslaved Africans, but also created an entirely separate system of laws and punishments that affected that group. The legislature thus served the economic motives of the wealthy white planter elite.
The earliest piece of slave legislation passed in 1662 after the formal recognition of slavery. In the document from the Virginia General Assembly, the law states that children would inherit the condition of bondage or liberty directly from their mothers, regardless of the state of their fathers. Hence, a child born to an enslaved mother automatically entered into a lifetime of bondage. This law broke with traditional English inheritance practices, which strongly favored primogeniture—the passing of property and status to the eldest son or other closest male relative. Virginia’s decision to pass on enslaved status through the maternal line was therefore a revolutionary one that clearly reflected the existence of illegitimate children fathered on enslaved African women by free English colonists. The law did try to stymie this practice by placing a heavy fine on white Virginians who procreated with an African colonist, either enslaved or free, outside of marriage. However, the decision to make slavery a heritable condition proved a momentous one that tied new generations to the institution and created a large pool of enslaved persons even after the formal abolition of the transatlantic slave trade some 150 years later.
As the legislature sought to make becoming a slave easier, it made ending one’s term of bondage more difficult. Early European ideas about slavery forbade the ownership of one Christian by another; thus, Africans who converted to Christianity in their native countries were typically considered exempt from potential bondage, and even enslaved Africans who converted after their arrival in the Americas often gained liberty upon their baptism as Christians. Virginia ended this policy in 1667 by stating that baptism was no longer an automatic path to freedom to end “doubts” about whether the sacrament conferred manumission. This law served a dual purpose: limiting a path to freedom for enslaved persons that had only recently become legally tied to lifelong bondage and encouraging slave owners to seek to spread Christianity among their slaves. In doing so, the law reversed earlier justifications for slavery, which had pointed to the heathen religious practices of Africans and American Indians. The economic motive of slavery now trumped the earlier moral rationales.
The next slave code, enacted in 1669, promotes the idea of slaves not as humans, but as soulless property, in its removal of any potential punishment for “the casuall killing of slaves.” Because slaves, unlike indentured servants, could not be threatened with measures such as the extension of bondage—and because the legislature believed that the natural “obstinacy” of enslaved African was so great—the assembly freed any master or overseer from all blame if an enslaved person was killed during the course of punishment for any type of resistance. The assembly justified this law by stating that no rational master would intentionally murder a slave because to do so would be to damage his own economic holdings; consequently, any such death was accidental and therefore not to be counted as murder. Under such reasoning, slaves were no more people than were any other economic plantation resource and thus not deserving of equal protection from violence or even death.
The transition of enslaved persons from person to property continued with the institution of several new laws as part of the overhaul of the Virginia legal code undertaken by the General Assembly from 1705 onward. Like other slave codes developed throughout the colonies, these laws assert their purpose as improving safety and order within the colony. In their October 1705, Chapter XXII ruling, Virginia lawmakers specifically state that their purpose in declaring enslaved persons to be real estate was the “better settling and preservation of estates.” This statement clarifies the economic and organizational motives of the laws; although the social and cultural effects of slave laws were immense, they existed primarily to support the plantation agriculture system on which Virginia and other southern colonies relied.
The declaration of enslaved persons as real estate, rather than chattel, reinforced these agricultural connections. Section II of Chapter XXII declares all slaves to be real estate treated under the law as fixed property. This meant that slaves were passed “unto the heirs and widows” of deceased slaveholders in the same way as owned land rather than as a moveable possession, essentially tying people held in bondage to the physical plantations of their owners in much the same way that medieval serfs had been attached to the land owned by their manor’s lord. By 1750, however, Virginia would revert to the usage of chattel slavery. In severing the ties that bound enslaved people to the land, enslaved families could be broken up through sales. Valuation as real estate, while dehumanizing, had actually been somewhat to the benefit of enslaved people, who could at least generally expect to remain on the same plantation.
The remaining sections of the October 1705 laws deal with various legal issues relating to the process of the inheritance of slaves that were considered real estate. Section X covers the distribution of enslaved persons to the children of a slave owner who died intestate, or without a will. Those enslaved persons who were promised to a widow as part of her husband’s estate first went to her; any additional slaves were counted and given a value. The total value was then divided equally among all of the slaveholder’s children, although the enslaved workers themselves passed to the deceased’s primary heir. That heir was then required to pay each other beneficiary the amount due to him or her for the relevant proportion of the total value of the enslaved part of the estate.
Section XI addresses potential actions by a widow regarding the slaves she held as part of her inheritance after her husband’s death. The legislation bans the widow from removing such enslaved persons from Virginia without the approval of the person who would take control of those slaves once the widow’s claim expired. A widow who broke this law would lose all claim to her inheritance from her husband. The economic repercussions for a potential next husband to such a widow could also be severe. If a husband removed the enslaved persons from the colony, he faced action from the next claimant for all of the property that had come to the former widow through her previous husband’s death. These strictures therefore sought to ensure that those held in bondage in Virginia stayed in the colony even after the original owner’s death.
Other slave codes increased the number of people automatically considered enslaved, rather than indentured, upon arrival in Virginia. According to Chapter XLIX of the October 1705 codes, all people who came to Virginia as a “servant”—meaning an indentured servant with a fixed, limited term of service—were to “be accounted and be slaves” if they did not originate in Christian nation. Exceptions were granted for Muslims of the powerful Turkish Ottoman Empire or other nations that had friendly diplomatic relations with England, and for those few who could prove that they held freedom in England or any other Christian (that is, European) nation. Such persons forced into slavery in this manner could not attain freedom through baptism in an affirmation of the 1667 law barring manumission through conversion.
Simple presence in England was not enough to prove one’s freedom; instead, a free person of African descent was required to produce manumission papers to attest to his or her liberty. This law finalized the importation of Africans as slaves rather than indentured servants, ensuring that the latter category remained reserved for white Christian Europeans. The law also made it possible for free individuals who could not prove their status to be forced into slavery. Tied to this, slaves were forbidden from serving as witnesses in court, making it impossible for a wrongfully enslaved person to speak in his or her own favor.
The Virginia General Assembly did establish punishment for those who sold free persons into slavery, however. If a slave was found to be legitimately free, the seller was forced to pay the purchaser “double the sum for which the said freeman was sold.” The person sold in slavery received nothing. Again, an economic punishment for the dubious sale of property was inflicted, rather than an action that reflected the moral ramifications of the buying and selling of human beings. Even free blacks were considered of less importance than free whites.
Legislators also wished to reserve the owning of indentured servants and slaves to only white Christian Virginians. Although some early Africans in Virginia had achieved freedom from servitude and established themselves as slave-owning planters, the 1705 slave codes barred the purchase of white Christian indentured servants or any slaves by not only Africans and American Indians, but also by Muslims or Jews. Any such European servant contracted by a master from these restricted groups immediately gained his or her freedom upon arrival in Virginia. Similarly, any white person with indentured servants who married a member of a restricted group immediately gave up his or her right to require servants to complete their contracts. Although outright interracial marriage between whites and blacks was barred entirely by the slave codes, this measure served as a disincentive for intermarriage of white Christian Europeans with members of other religious groups, thus further stratifying the racial and cultural divides among colonial society to the benefit of white Christian landowners.
Culturally, therefore, the Virginia legislature sought to strengthen the divisions between the races to prevent the intermingling of white and black in colonial society over time. Indentured servants were forcibly separated from enslaved workers, despite being of similar economic class. A European servant who gave birth to a child fathered by an enslaved African faced either the prospect of paying a sizable fine to the clergy of the parish in which the child was born at the end of her term of indenture or of being returned to servitude for five years to pay this debt. A free white woman who gave birth to such a baby was sold into servitude unless she was able to pay the sum required. Mulatto, or mixed-race children, born to indentured or free white women did not, in contrast to earlier law, automatically assume the status of their mothers; instead, they were placed in indentured servitude until their thirty-first birthdays. White men, in contrast, faced no such prohibition, allowing them to engage in sexual relations with enslaved Africans that resulted into the birth of numerous enslaved children.
Colonial cultural aversions to the mixing of races resulted in other slave codes that emphasized the separation of races. In Section XIX of the 1705 codes, the intermarriage of African and European colonists is outlawed, with the reasoning that it was necessary to “[prevent] . . . that abominable mixture and spurious issue.” To many English Virginians, the idea of intermingling was morally abhorrent, a further reflection of the low opinion of Africans in society. No white colonist was permitted to marry a black one, whether enslaved or free. Offenders were required to serve six months in prison, without the possibility of early release, and pay a fine. To help ensure that this stricture was observed, the Virginia General Assembly prohibited clergy members from performing marriages between white and black Virginians. The fine for a transgressing minister was a steep one: ten thousand pounds of tobacco. Yet only half of this fine went to the government. The other half rewarded the person who informed on the minister for performing the marriage, giving the average Virginian a substantial incentive to police his or her neighbors. Such measures encouraged the support of the colony’s numerous small farmers who did not have a substantial economic stake in the furtherance of slavery, by making these farmers potential stakeholders in the institution.
Other laws worked to keep the economic relationship between whites and blacks one of ownership and servitude rather than one of mutual benefit. Section XV of the slave codes barred the act of trade between free colonists and either indentured or enslaved workers. The language of the code implies that punishment for this act was severe. The free party was forced to serve a prison sentence and provide a monetary bond against the repetition of such an act in the near future. Repeat offenders faced increasingly steep penalties paid directly to the owner or master of the servant or slave. Those who could not pay the required fine instead faced the threat of a public whipping of “thirty-nine lashes.” Such measures kept skilled servants or slaves extremely economically depressed and unable to sell their own handiwork to earn money, limiting their abilities to successfully escape from their plantations or gather the materials needed to mount a serious insurrection.
Virginia legislators also sought to increase the support and participation of non-slaveholders by setting rewards for the recovery of fugitive slaves. Runaway slaves captured fewer than ten miles from their home plantation carried a reward of one hundred pounds of tobacco; those captured at greater distances were worth rewards of two hundred pounds of tobacco. Thus, as with the act of informing on illegal interracial marriages, the act of pursuing another’s fugitive slave carried personal rewards for non-slaveholders. In section XXIII of the 1705 codes, slave owners are encouraged to monitor their own plantations to ensure that potential fugitives could not escape, as the owners were the ones liable for the payment of any reward. This law reiterated tenets set forth in earlier slave laws and remained in effect well into the nineteenth century. Records indicate that individual Virginians claimed cash rewards under this 1705 law as late as the 1840s.
Other measures of the 1705 slave codes followed similarly harsh lines to ensure the dominance of the wealthy white planter elite over the economically vital black underclass. For example, runaway slaves faced the prospect of facial branding, and those who resisted capture could be legally killed by their pursuers. Slaves faced severe physical punishment or automatic execution for infractions such as theft, violence, or even assembly, if that meeting was believed to be in support of a rebellion. Such measures laid the groundwork for the years of oppression that followed.
Virginia’s slave codes were not the first in colonial British North America, but they did prove highly formative for the colony and, later, the state of Virginia. Contemporary historians remain interested in the transition from indentured to enslaved labor in colonial Virginia, and the study of the era’s slave laws provides a window on that evolution. The passage of the slave codes sealed the status of imported Africans and their descendents as lifelong slaves rather than as contracted indentured servants with a set term of service, firmly establishing the split between free—or potentially free—European labor and forced African labor. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, Virginia relied much more heavily on European indentured labor than on imported African work. The slave laws of the latter seventeenth century exemplify the shift toward the use of enslaved labor. By eliminating paths to freedom and assuring the continuation of slavery from generation to generation, planters of European descent—a group that often overlapped with colonial legislators—guaranteed themselves a lasting pool of unpaid workers that in turn allowed their agricultural holdings to attain profitability.
The laws passed in the early eighteenth century served to establish and reinforce cultural divisions between European and African colonists. By dehumanizing African workers through restrictive laws that denied them the same rights as Europeans and punished them harshly for efforts to resist the system, colonial legislators encouraged colonists to embrace the perceived superiority of white Christian Europeans over others. Laws like the Virginia slave codes thus helped ally white indentured servants—who might otherwise have joined social and economic forces with enslaved black laborers—with the slaveholding class along purely racial lines. The focus on slaves as real estate property rather than independent humans further supported this racial divide and carved out a purely economic niche for these colonial workers. Laws required subservience by enslaved workers to their masters and forbade slaves from standing up for their rights at the price of their lives.
Many of the laws passed as part of the 1705 codes remained in force until the abolition of slavery following the American Civil War, and the social and cultural systems that they created endured even beyond that time. As late as the early twentieth century, for example, Virginia passed laws barring the intermarriage of white and nonwhite residents; the 1967 Supreme Court decision that eventually overturned all such laws around the nation stemmed from a challenge to the prohibition of interracial marriage in Virginia. Thus, the prejudices of the Virginia General Assembly in the early eighteenth century informed the civil rights battles fought by Virginians more than 250 years later.
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