Primary Resource

"An Act directing the trial of Slaves, committing capital crimes; and for the more effectual punishing conspiracies and insurrections of them; and for the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free" (1723)

In "An Act directing the trial of Slaves, committing capital crimes; and for the more effectual punishing conspiracies and insurrections of them; and for the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free," passed by the General Assembly in the session of May 1723, Virginia's colonial government establishes laws with regards to the punishment of slaves and the overall government of slaves, free blacks, and Indians.

Transcription from Original

I.

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WHEREAS the laws now in force, for the better ordering and governing of slaves, and for the speedy trial of such of them as commit capital crimes, are found insufficient to restraint heir tumultuous and unlawful meetings, or to punish the secret plots and conspiracies carried on amongst them, and known only to such, as by the laws now established, are not accounted legal evidence: And it being found necessary, that some further provision be made, for detecting and punishing all such dangerous combinations for the future,

II.

Be it enacted, by the Lieutenant-Governor, Council, and Burgesses, of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted, by the authority of the same, That if any number of negros, or other slaves, exceeding five, shall at any time hereafter consult, advise, or conspire, to rebel or make insurrection, or shall plot or conspire the murder of any person or persons whatsoever, every such consulting, plotting, or conspiring, shall be adjudged and deemed felony; and the slave or slaves convicted thereof, in manner herein after directed, shall suffer death, and be utterly excluded the benefit of clergy, and of all laws made concerning the same.

III.

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And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That every slave committing such offence, as, by the laws, ought to be punished with death, or loss of member, shall be forthwith committed to the common goal of the county, within which the said offence shall be committed, there to be safely kept; and that the sheriff of such county, upon such commitment, shall forthwith certify the same, with the cause thereof, to the Governor or Commander in Chief of this His Majesty's Colony and Dominion, for the time being, who is thereupon desired and impowered to issue a commission of Oyer and Terminer, to such persons as he shall think fit: Which persons, forthwith after the receipt of such commission, are impowered and required to cause the offender to be publicly arraigned and tried, at the court-house of the said county, and to take for evidence, the confession of the offender, the oath of one or more credible witnesses, or such testimony of Negroes, Mulattos, or Indians, bond or free, with pregnant circumstances, as to them shall seem convincing, without the solemnity of a jury: And the offender being by them found guilty, to pass such judgment upon such offender, as the law directs, for the like crimes; and on such judgment, to award execution.

IV.

And to the end, such Negros, Mulattos, or Indians, not being christians, as shall hereafter be produced as evidences, on the trial of any slave for capital crimes, may be under the greater obligation to declare the truth, Be it enacted, That where any such Negro, Mulatto, or Indian, shall upon due proof made, or pregnant circumstances appearing before any county court within this colony, be found to have given a false testimony, every such offender shall, without further trial, be ordered by the said court to have one ear nailed to the pillory, and there to stand for the space of one hour, and then the said ear to be cut off; and thereafter, the other ear nailed in like manner, and cut off, at the expiration of one other hour; and moreover, to order every such offender thirty-nine lashes, well laid on, on his or her bare back, at the common whipping-post.

V.

And be it further enacted, That at every such trial of slaves committing capital offences, the person who shall be first named in the commission, sitting on such trial, shall, before the examination of every Negro,

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Mulatto, or Indian, not being a christian, charge such evidence to declare the truth; which charge shall be in the words following, viz:

'YOU are brought hither as a witness; and, by the direction of the law, I am to tell you, before you give your evidence, that you must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; and that if it be found hereafter, that you tell a lie, and give false testimony in this matter, you must, for so doing, have both your ears nailed to the pillory, and cut off, and receive thirty-nine lashes on your bare back, well laid on, at the common whipping-post.'

VI.

Provided always, and it is hereby intended, That the master or owner of any slave, to be arraigned and tried, by virtue of this act, may appear at the trial, and make what just defence he can for such slave, so that such defence do not relate to any formality in the proceedings on the trial.

VII.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That when any slave shall be convicted, by virtue of this act, the commissioners that shall sit on trial, shall put a valuation in money, upon such slave so convicted, and certify such valuation to the next assembly, that the said assembly may be enabled to make a suitable allowance thereupon to the master or owner of such slave.

VIII.

And whereas many inconveniences have arisen, by the meetings of great numbers of negros and other slaves: For prevention thereof, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That from henceforth no meetings of negros, or other slaves, be allowed, on any pretence whatsoever, (except as is hereafter excepted.) And that every master, owner, or overseer of any plantation, who shall, knowingly or willingly, permit any such meetings, or suffer more than five negros or slaves, other than the negros or slaves belonging to his, her, or their plantations or quarters, to be and remain upon any plantation or quarter, at any one time, shall forfeit and pay the sum of five shillings, or fifty pounds of tobacco, for each negro or slave, over and above such number, that shall at any time hereafter so unlawfully meet or assemble, on his, her, or their plantation, to the informer: To be

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recovered, with costs, before any justice of the peace of the county where such offence shall be committed.

IX.

Provided always, That nothing herein contained, shall be construed to restrain the negros, or other slaves, belonging to one and the same owner, and seated at distinct quarters or plantations, to meet, by the licence of such owner, or his or her overseer, at any of the quarters or plantations to such owner belonging; nor to restrain the meeting of any number of slaves, on their owner's or overseer's business, at any public mill, so as such meeting be not in the night, or on a Sunday; nor to restrain their meeting on any other lawful occasion, by the licence, in writing, of their master, mistress, or overseers; nor to prohibit any slaves repairing to and meeting at church to attend divine service, on the lord's day, or at any other time set apart by lawful authority, for public worship: But that all and every such meetings, shall be accounted lawful meetings; any thing in this act contained to the contrary thereo notwithstanding.

X.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if any white person, free negro, mulatto, or Indian, shall at any time hereafter be found in company with any such slaves, at any such unlawful meetings, as aforesaid, or harbor or entertain any negro, or other slave whatsoever, without the consent of their owners, he, she, or they, so offending, upon being thereof lawfully convicted, shall forfeit and pay the sum of fifteen shillings, or one hundred and fifty pounds of tobacco, to the informer: To be recovered, with costs, before any justice of the peace; and upon failure to make present paiment, shall have and receive, on his, her, or their bare backs, for every such offence, twenty lashes, well laid on. And every negro, mulatto, or indian slave, who shall come or assemble to such unlawful meetings, shall, upon information thereof made to any justice of the peace of the county where such offence shall be committed, for every such offence, have and receive, on his or her bare back, any number of lashes, not exceeding thirty-nine.

XI.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That every justice of the peace of any county wherein such unlawful meetings shall happen, upon his own knowledge, or upon information thereof to him made, within ten days after such

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offence committed, shall forthwith issue his warrant to apprehend all such persons, who so met or assembled, and cause such offenders to be brought before him, or some other justice of the peace of the said county:—And that ever such justice, who shall fail in his duty herein, shall forfeit and pay the sum of fifty shillings, or five hundred pounds of tobacco, for every such offence.

XII.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That every sheriff, under-sheriff, or constable, who, upon his or their own knowledge, or upon information thereof to him or them made, of any such unlawful meetings, as aforesaid, shall fail forthwith to endeavour to suppress and disperse the same, and to carry the offenders before some justice of the peace, in order for the said offenders to receive due punishment, the sheriff, for every offence by him committed, shall forfeit and pay the sum of fifty shillings, or five hundred pounds of tobacco: Both which several fines, of fifty shillings, or five hundred pounds of tobacco, herein before-mentioned, shall be to the informer; and may be recovered, with costs, in any court or courts of record within this colony and dominion, by action of debt, bill, plaint or information, wherein no essoin, protection, or wager of law, shall be allowed, or any more than one imparlance. And the under sheriff, or constable, failing to perform his or their duty herein, for every offence by him or them committed, shall forfeit and pay twenty shillings, or two hundred pounds of tobacco, to the informer: To be recovered, with costs, before any justice of the peace of the county where such offence shall be committed.

XIII.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if any negro, mulatto, or Indian slave, shall at any time hereafter presume to come and be upon the plantation of any person or persons whatsoever, without the leave or consent, in writing, of his or her master, owner, or overseer, and without the consent and approbation of the owner or overseer of such plantation, it shall and may be lawful to and for the master, owner, or overseer of any such plantation or quarter, to correct and give such slave or slaves ten lashes, well laid on, on his or her bare back, for every such offence.

XIV.

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And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That no negro, mulatto, or Indian whatsoever; (except as is hereafter excepted,) shall hereafter presume to keep, or carry any gun, powder, shot, or any club, or other weapon whatsoever, offensive or defensive; but that every gun, and all powder and shot, and every such club or weapon, as aforesaid, found or taken in the hands, custody, or possession of any such negro, mulatto, or Indian, shall be taken away; and upon due proof thereof made, before any justice of the peace of the county where such offence shall be committed, be forfeited to the seisor and informer, and moreover, every such negro, mulatto, or Indian, in whose hands, custody, or possession, the same shall be found, shall, by order of the said justice, have and receive any number of lashes, not exceeding thirty-nine, well laid on, on his or her bare back, for every such offence.

XV,

Provided nevertheless, That every free negro, mullatto, or indian, being a house-keeper, or listed in the militia, may be permitted to keep one gun, powder, and shot; and that those who are not house-keepers, nor listed in the militia aforesaid, who are now possessed of any gun, powder, shot, or any weapon, offensive or defensive, may sell and dispose thereof, at any time before the last day of October next ensuing. And that all negros, mullattos, or indians, bond or free, living at any frontier plantation, be permitted to keep and use guns, powder, and shot, or other weapons, offensive or defensive; having first obtained a licence for the same, from some justice of the peace of the county wherein such plantations lie; the said licence for the same, from some justice of the peace of the county wherein such plantations lie; the said licence to be had and obtained, upon the application of such free negros, mullattos, or indians, or of the owner or owners of such as are slaves; any thing herein contained to the contrary thereof, in any wise, notwithstanding.

XVI.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if in the dispersing of any unlawful assemblies, pursuit of rebels or conspirators, or seizing the arms and ammunition of such as are prohibited by this act to keep the same, any slave shall happen to be killed or destroied, the court of the county where such slave shall be killed, upon application of the owner of such slave, and due proof thereof made, shall put

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a valuation in money, upon such slave so killed, and certify such valuation to the next session of assembly, that the said assembly may be enabled to make a suitable allowance thereupon to the master or owner of such slave.

XVII.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That no negro, mullatto, or indian slaves, shall be set free, upon any pretence whatsoever, except for some meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed by the governor and council, for the time being, and a licence thereupon first had and obtained. −− And that, where any slave shall be set free by his master or owner, otherwise than is herein before directed, it shall and may be lawful for the churchwardens of the parish, wherein such negro, mullatto, or indian, shall reside for the space of one month, next after his or her being set free, and they are hereby authorized and required, to take up, and sell the said negro, mullatto, or indian, as slaves, at the next court held for the said county, by public outcry; and that the monies arising by such sale, shall be applied to the use of the said parish, by the vestry thereof.

XIII.

And forasmuch, as the act passed in the fourth year of the reign of her late Majesty Queen Anne, intituled, An act concerning servants and slaves, whereby power is given to the county court, to order the dismembring of incorrigible runaways and other slaves, hath not had the intended effect, by reason of some misconstructions of the powers thereby granted, Be it enacted, That where any slaves shall hereafter be found notoriously guilty of going abroad in the night, or running away, and lying out, and cannot be reclaimed from such disorderly courses, by the common methods of punishment, it shall and may be lawful, to and for the court of the county, upon complaint and proof thereof to them made, by the owner of such slave, to order and direct every such slave to be punished, by dismembring, or any other way, not touching life, as the said county court shall think fit.

XIX.

And, for preventing all doubts which may arise, upon the construction of this, or any other act of assembly of this colony, touching the death of slaves under correction, or lawful punishment, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That if any slave shall happen to die by means of such dismembring, by order of the county court, or for or by reason of any stroke or

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blow given, during his or her correction; by his or her owner, for any offence by such slave committed, or for or by reason of any accidental blow whatsoever, given by such owner; no person concerned in such dismembring correction, or accidental homicide, shall undergo any prosecution or punishment for the same; unless upon examination before the county court, it shall be proved, by the oath of one lawful and credible witness, at the least, that such slave was killed wilfully, maliciously, or designedly; neither shall any person whatsoever, who shall be indicted for the murder of any slave, and upon trial, shall be found guilty only of manslaughter, incur any forfeiture or punishment for such offence or misfortune.

XX.

Provided always, That nothing herein contained, shall be construed, deemed, or taken, to defeat or barr the action of any person or persons, whose slave or slaves shall happen to be killed by any other person whatsoever, or whose slaves shall happen to die thro' the negligence of any surgeon, or other person, undertaking the dismembring or cure of such slave, liable to such punishment by this act: But that all and every owner or owners of such slave or slaves, shall and may bring his or her action, for recovery of damages for such slave or slaves so killed or dying, as if this act had never been made.

XXI.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That all free negros, mullattos, or indians, (except tributary indians to this government) male and female, above the age of sixteen years, and all wives of such negros, mullattos, or indians, (except before excepted) shall be deemed and accounted tithables; any law, custom, or usage, to the contrary, in any wise, notwithstanding.

XXII.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That where any female mullatto, or indian, by law obliged to serve 'till the age of thirty or thirty-one years, shall during the time of her servitude, have any child born of her body, every such child shall serve the master or mistress of such mullatto or indian, until it shall attain the same age the mother of such child was obliged by law to serve unto.

XXIII.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted and declared, That no free negro, mullatto, or indian whatsoever, shall

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hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.

XXIV.

And be it further enacted, That the churchwardens of each parish, within this his Majesty's colony and dominion, at the charge of their parish, shall provide a true copy of this act, and cause entry thereof to be made in the register book of each parish; and shall, on some Sunday in the months of April and October, yearly, after divine service ended, at the door of every church and chapel in their parish, publicly read the same. And the sheriff of each county shall, at the court held for the county, in the months of June or July, yearly, publish this act, at the door of the courthouse of the said county. And every churchwarden and sheriff making default herein, shall, for each time so offending, forfeit and pay five hundred pounds of tobacco, to the informer: To be recovered, with costs, by action of debt, in any court or courts of record within this colony and dominion. And the minister or reader making default herein, shall, for each time so offending, forfeit and pay two hundred pounds of tobacco, to the informer: To be recovered, with costs, before any justice of the peace of the county wherein such default shall happen.

XXV.

And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That the act of assembly, made in the fourth year of the reign of our late sovereign lady Queen Anne, intituled, An Act for the speedy and easy prosecution of Slaves committing capital crimes, be from henceforth repealed and made void, to all intents, constructions, and purposes.