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Excerpts from Governor John Floyd's Message to the General Assembly (December 6, 1831)

In these excerpts from his annual message to the General Assembly, dated December 6, 1831, Governor John Floyd responds to Nat Turner's Rebellion by calling for tougher laws controlling slaves and for the colonization of free blacks. He also decries federal regulation and advocates states' rights.

Transcription from Original

LEGISLATURE OF VIRGINIA.

Extracts from the annual message of gov. Floyd—Dec 6.

Whilst we were enjoying the abundance of last season, reposing in the peace and quiet of domestic comfort and safety, we were suddenly aroused from that security by receiving information, that a portion of our fellow-citizens, had fallen victims to the relentless fury of assassins and murderers, even whilst wrapped in profound sleep, and that those bloody deeds had been perpetrated in a spirit of wantonness and cruelty, unknown to savage warfare, even in their most revolting form.

In August last, a banditti of slaves, consisting of but few at first, and not at any time exceeding a greater number than seventy, rose upon some of the unsuspecting and defenceless inhabitants of Southampton, and under circumstances of the most shocking and horrid barbarity, put to death sixty-one persons, of whom the greater number were women and helpless children.—Much of this bloody work was done on Monday morning, and on the day following, about ten o'clock, the last murder was committed.— The citizens of that and the adjacent counties promptly assembled, and all real danger was speedily terminated.

The conspiracy was at first believed to be general: wherefore I was induced to call into service, a force sufficient to crush, at a single blow, all opposing power, whatever might be its strength. To this end, detachments of light infantry from the seventh and fifty-fourth regiments, and from the fourth regiment of cavalry, and fourth light artillery, under captains Harrison and Richardson, were ordered to repair to the scene of action with all possible speed, and report to brigadier general [Richard] Eppes. who had been desired to assume the command, and call out his brigade. Arms and ammunition were amply furnished and thrown into all the conn. ties which were suspected of disaffection.—Two regiments in Brunswick and Greensville, were called into service by their commanding officers, under the law vesting them with power to do so, for such purposes. These troops being within the brigade commanded by brigadier general William H. Brodnax, that officer assumed the command, and remained in the field until all danger had passed.

It gives me great pleasure to communicate to the general assembly, the high satisfaction I feel in bearing testimony to the zeal, promptitude and despatch with which every officer discharged his duty, and the cheerful alacrity with which every citizen obeyed the call of the law.

Though the call upon the light troops was so promptly obeyed, yet before their arrival, the revolt was subdued, and many of these deluded fanatic were either captured or were placed beyond the possibility of escape; some had already been immolated by an excited people.

I feel the highest gratification in adding. that the readiest aid was afforded by commodore [Jesse Duncan] Elliot of the United States navy. and a detachment of sailors from the ship Natchez under his command, who, notwithstanding they had just returned from a long and distant cruise, repaired to the scene of action with a highly creditable alacrity. Much is also due to col [James] House, the commanding officer at fortress Monroe, for the promptitude with which be detached a part of his force to our aid, under the command of lieutenant colonel [William J.] Worth, to whom similar praise is due; as likewise to the officers and soldiers under his command, for the promptitude with which they also repaired to our assistance so soon as it came to their knowledge: all necessity for their co-operation had ceased before they reached their point of destination; but they are not the less entitled to commendation on that account.

All of those who participated in the bloody tragedy have expiated their crimes, by undergoing public execution, whilst some who had been condemned, have been reprieved for reasons which were deemed satisfactory—There is much reason to believe that the spirit of insurrection was not confined to Southampton; many convictions have taken place elsewhere and some few in distant counties. From the documents which I herewith lay before you, there is too much reason to believe those plans of treason, insurrection and murder, have been designed, planned and matured, by unrestrained fanatics in some of the neighboring states, who find facilities in distributing their views and plans amongst our population, either through the post office, or by agents sent for that purpose throughout our territory.

Upon inspecting these documents, and contemplating that state of things which they are intended to produce, I felt it my duty to open a correspondence with the governors of some of the neighboring powers of this confederacy, to preserve, as far as possible, the good understanding which exists and which ought to be cherished, between the different members of this union. The result of this correspondence will be made known to you, as soon as it is ascertained.

The most active among ourselves, in stirring up the spirit of revolt, have been the negro preachers. They had acquired great ascendancy over the minds of their fellows, and infused all their opinions, which had prepared them for the development of the final design.—There is also some reason to believe, those preachers have a perfect understanding in relation to these plans, throughout the eastern counties—and have been the channels through which the inflammatory papers and pamphlets. brought here by the agents and emissaries from other states, have been circulated amongst our slaves. The facilities thus affording for plotting treason and conspiracy, to rebel and make insurrection, have been great; through the indulgence of the magistracy and the laws, large collections of slaves have been permitted to take place, at any time through the week. for the ostensible purpose of indulging in religious worship; but in many instances the real purpose with the preacher, was of a different character. The sentiments, and sometimes the words, of these inflammatory pamphlets, which the meek and charitable of other states have seen cause to distribute as fire-brands in the bosom of our society, have been read. What shall be thought of those fiends, who, having no interest in our community; nevertheless seek to excite a servile war?—a war, which exhausts itself in the massacre of unoffending women and children on the one side, and on the other, in the sacrifice of all who have borne part in the savage undertaking. Not only should the severest punishment be inflicted upon those disturbers of our peace, whenever they or their emissaries are found within our reach, but decisive measures should be adopted to make all their measures abortive. The public good requires the negro preachers to be silenced, who, full of ignorance. are incapable of inculcating any thing but notions of the wildest superstition: thus preparing fit instruments in the bands of the crafty agitators to destroy the public tranquility.

As the means or guarding against the possible repetition of these sanguinary scenes, I cannot fail to recommend to your early attention, the revision of all the laws, intended to preserve in due subordination the slave population of our state.— In urging these considerations upon you, let me not be understood as expressing the slightest doubt or apprehension of general results—all communities are liable to suffer from the dagger of the murderer and midnight assassin, and it behooves them to guard against them.— With us, the first returning light dispels the danger, and soon witnesses the murderer in chains.

Though means have been taken by those of other states to agitate our community, and discontent our slaves, and incite them to attempt an unattainable object, some proof is also furnished that for the class of free people of color, they have opened more enlarged views, and urge the achievement of a higher destiny by means for the present less violent, but not differing in the end from those presented to the slaves. That class of the community our laws have heretofore treated with indulgent kindness, and many instances of solicitude for their welfare have marked the progress of legislation.—lf the slave is confined by law to the estate of his master. as it is advisable he should be, the free people of color may, nevertheless, convey all the incendiary pamphlets and papers with which we are sought to be inundated. This class, too, has been the first to place itself in hostile array against every measure designed to remove them from amongst us.—Though it will be indispensably necessary for them to withdraw from this community, yet, in the spirit of kindness which has ever characterized the legislature of Virginia, it is submitted, whether as the last benefit which we can confer upon them, it may not be wise to appropriate annually, a sum of money to aid in their removal from this commonwealth.

Whilst recent events had created apprehensions in the minds of a few, some agitation was also more extensively felt wherefore it

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was deemed prudent to arm the militia in a manner calculated to quiet all apprehensions, and arms were accordingly furnished to nearly all the regiments on the eastern frontier. The want of them, upon this sudden emergency, was so sensibly felt by those in the vicinity of Norfolk, as to induce commodore [Lewis] Warrington, in command of the navy yard in Gosport, to distribute a portion of the public arms under his care. That gallant and patriotic officer did not hesitate to assume the responsibility of this step, and it is gratifying to perceive that his conduct has met the approbation of the public functionaries. The policy of disarming the militia, it is believed. was pursued as a measure of economy, as the men and officers had been culpably negligent in their attention to their preservation, so that many were lost, or by neglect became unfit for service. Now, however, the necessity for preserving them is distinctly felt, and a doubt cannot be entertained, that more care will be taken of them in future. I could not weigh the expense incurred by this measure, against the possible sacrifice of life, much less the possible repetition of the scenes of Southampton.

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[Next follows a great deal of matter about canals or roads contemplated to be made, and of the advantages that will be derivable from them when made—as it has been the custom to speak in Virginia for somewhere about fifty years past!]

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It will be necessary to call your attention to the present condition of our militia, and to recommend a thorough revision of the law on that subject.—Much of the strength and efficiency of that kind of force depends upon the promptness with which they can be ready for action, and some knowledge of the first duties of a soldier.

Our light troops might be increased in every battalion and regiment with great advantage to the service, and ought to be encouraged by privileges and exemptions, as they will always be the first called into service, and unlike the infantry of the line, they will be called out by whole companies instead of being detailed for duty, as is now the case, with the body of the militia. From the dexterity and skill of our citizens in the use of the rifle, and a fondness for that kind of arms, as well as the great care and time it requires to drill a regiment in the rifle exercise, the propriety of organizing them into regiments is suggested.

From the position in which this state is placid and the attitude occupied by her, it becomes a matter of very serious reflection, whether a force more available than the militia may not be advisable and attainable at a small expense. By a well-organized, intermediate force, even a foreign war might be sustained without disturbing the quiet operations of the government or of the farmer. We have at this time an hundred and thirty-nine regiments full and strong.—Were one company to be authorised by law to be raised by voluntary enlistments from each regiment, or such number of regiments as would give the number of men required, and put upon the footing of the public guard, you would have a cheap and efficient army ready to perform any and every duty. These soldiers might be permitted to live at home and work their crops as heretofore, but at all times subject to the call of their officers. Some allowances should be made them, and the equipments of a soldier furnished, as an inducement to enlist, to be drilled once a month for as many days as the general assembly should think proper, and whilst on drill, to receive ample pay for his time; but no other pay allowed, unless embodied for service when his pay and allowances should be the same as that received by the public guard now its service.

[Next we have several paragraphs on local subjects. The university is mentioned with much approbation, and its prosperity proclaimed.]

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Our treasury will be found in a highly prosperous condition; and affords proof of the energies of the state, as it maintains its position under so much misrule in the government which acts upon our exports. The unexpected balance in the treasury, at the end of the fiscal year 1830, was 88,941 dollars and 86 cents—that which remained in the treasury at the end of the fiscal year, 1831, was 106,595 dollars and 71 cents. The actual amount in the treasury on the first day of the present month, was 324,689 dollars and 27 cents.

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The constitution of our state has made it the duty of the governor "to communicate to the legislature, at every session, the condition of the commonwealth." To discharge this duty, it will be necessary for me to call your attention to our federal relations.

The deep interest felt by all the states, in the manner in which that part of their concerns has been managed by the federal government, to which they have delegated certain defined and limited powers, would make me highly culpable if I failed to notice them, or omitted to speak of them to you as they deserve. The general assembly have never failed to keep a watchful eye over those rights which were reserved to the states, and to the people by the compact or constitution—when the several states, for their own benefit and convenience, created the federal government. That government, merely the agent of the states, and only allowed to exercise those powers which were intended to operate externally, and upon the nations foreign to those composing the confederacy, has too often transcended the limits prescribed to it, and evinces an increasing disregard to the rights of the states, by the passage of unconstitutional acts, and by propositions for others, if it be possible, of a still more unwarrantable character. The complaints, memorials, and protests of some of the sovereign states of this confederacy have been unnoticed or disregarded, and the constitution seems about to be merged in the will of an unrestrained majority. No one can now doubt the tendency of that government, or the numerous evils which must ensue, unless speedily arrested in its downward career. If the will of that majority is unrestrained, and that government is suffered to search through their own records, for precedents upon which to found their claim to power, and thus melt away the solder of the federal chain, by making that constitutional now, because heretofore the same acts have been done by themselves, it is equivalent to the actual destruction of that instrument, and the substitution of a government unrestrained in its powers, and unlimited in its sway. It is even now strongly insinuated that the states cannot interpose to arrest an unconstitutional measure; if so, there is already no limit to federal power, and our short experience has shewn us the utter insufficiency of all restraints upon parchment.

Virginia resisted the usurpations of England, and encountered the hazard of war for political existence, and sought to guard against oppression, that her citizens might enjoy the liberty which belonged to them, and appropriate to their own use that which their labor had earned. The tariff law, of which all the southern states so justly complain, is calculated to take from our citizens the profit they have earned by their industry, and is also a violation of the constitution.—Not only has this been done, but laws have been passed appropriating the public money for purposes foreign to, and unwarranted by, the constitution. Agents have been appointed to negotiate treaties without consulting the senate—and propositions have been made to seize upon the surplus revenue in the treasury of the United States, to be divided among the states according to representation, though some of them export nothing, and consequently contribute little to that fund—which is in reality reducing the states to the condition of vassals and pensioners, paid by funds illegally exacted from them.

If these laws, these acts, and this claim to power, be constitutional, the constitution of the United States has been misunderstood, and is insufficient to accomplish the objects for which it was designed—that of preserving our liberties and our rights—if they are unconstitutional, the federal government has usurped the rights of the states, and by constituting itself the sole judge of its powers, has created a new political system, subversive of that to which allegiance is due.

If the legislative expediency is to triumph over constitutional rights, and the obligation of oaths be disregarded, then all human means for the security of liberty will avail us nothing, and freedom is gone forever.

We may see these laws continued by states. combining to advance their own local interests, and using their power to oppress the minority, which would then be without redress. These considerations ought not to he disregard, at least by the southern states, who are the minority, but the producers and exporters of the products which bring into the treasury the wealth, to obtain which, all the safeguards of liberty are about to be crumbled to pieces. No state has made so many sacrifices for this union as Virginia, to which she has been so much devoted. She has calmly awaited the period when a returning sense of justice would lead to an alleviation of her burthens, and an abandonment of those unconstitutional measures. Galling as the oppression has been, under which we have labored, we have been content to make our situation known through our members in congress, and by legislative resolves. Heretofore the public debt has been the pretext for this oppression. Now, however, it is upon the eve of extinction, when, for the sake of union, if not justice, we hope a change in these fatal measures.—But, I fear, doomed to disappointment, we must now prepare to combat a scheme which has been suggested, and has enlisted, or is likely to enlist, strong interest in its support. I refer to the scheme of distributing the surplus revenue among the states. The legislatures of two of the largest states have already expressed for it their approval; and the president of the United States has recommended it to congress in his two last annual messages. No scheme could be devised more ruinous to us and the other southern states, than this. Should it be adopted, all hope of relief from this oppressive system of measures will have vanished, as each year will show results which will present the strongest allurements to their increases those who contribute least, will be tempted to urge forward the most oppressive expedients to increase their portion of the spoil—while those who pay most, at best receive back but a small portion of what themselves contribute;—thus producing the combination of large states, to tax the smaller for local purposes, and to draw money from the pockets of one portion of this confederacy to enrich another. All other questions which have already agitated congress and the people, will be lost in this most terrible of all, and calculated to appeal the stoutest mind. A judicious tariff will then mean, that system which will lead to the greater exactions upon the south; and must, if persevered in, lead to the utter subversion of the entire frame of government. If the lingering hope which is still entertained should again be disappointed, it will rest with the people, and with you their representatives, to adopt such measures as may be deemed necessary to guard them against the evils of a system not only unconstitutional but unjust, oppressive and ruinous—nor will you be deterred by threats from any quarter from pursuing the course which duty requires. The strong arm of power will never be able to crush the spirit of freemen, or deter them from exercising their rights, and imposing barriers to the progress of usurpation.

Wishing you a pleasant session and a happy issue to all your deliberations, I am, gentlemen, your fellow citizen,

JOHN FLOYD.