Virginia Slave Laws
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Context: When the colony of Virginia began, most labor on the tobacco plantations that drove its economy was done by English or Irish indentured servants. These servants sold themselves for periods of time, usually seven years, in exchange for debt relief or passage to the New World. However, with the poor conditions in the newly-settled areas, life expectancy for servants was very short—often two or three years. So even after the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619, few Virginian planters were willing to pay the higher price for their “lifetime” of labor. Slaves and servants, therefore, most often received equal treatment, sharing the same harsh punishments (such as whipping for running away), but also opportunity for eventual freedom. Conversion to Christianity could mean the emancipation of a slave, there was frequent social interaction between the two groups, including intermarriage, and a general sense of shared status. But as conditions improved by the 1650s and life expectancies grew, investment in African laborers enslaved for life became more valued. As a result, the Virginia House of Burgesses (the colony’s government body) began to differentiate the status of European and African laborers by law.
Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother; and that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a Negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.
Whereas some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made partakers of the blessed sacrament of baptism, should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; that diverse masters, freed from this doubt may more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity by permitting children, through slaves, or those of greater growth if capable, to be admitted to that sacrament.
Whereas it has been questioned whether servants running away may be punished with corporal punishment by their master or magistrate, since the act already made gives the master satisfaction by prolonging their time by service, it is declared and enacted by this Assembly that moderate corporal punishment inflicted by master or magistrate upon a runaway servant shall not deprivate the master of the satisfaction allowed by the law, the one being as necessary to reclaim them from persisting in that idle course as the other is just to repair the damages sustained by the master.
Whereas the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistress, or overseer cannot be inflicted upon Negroes [the extension of time of service], nor the obstinacy of many of them be suppressed by other than violent means, be it enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly if any slave resists his master (or other by his master's order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accounted a felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquitted from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that premeditated malice (which alone makes murder a felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate.
Edited by: Prof. Stephen Duncan
Primary Source Material: William Waller Hening, Statues at Large; Being a Collection of All of the Laws of Virginia (Richmond, Va.: Samuel Pleasnats, 1809-23), Vol. II, pp. 170, 260, 266, 270.
"Virginia Slave Laws" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license by Prof. Stephen Duncan at Bronx Community College.