Primary Resource

Letter from "A Private Citizen" to James Monroe (December 10–11, 1800)

In this letter to James Monroe, dated December 10, 1800, and printed in the Virginia Gazette and General Advertiser the next day, "A Private Citizen" praises the governor's handling of Gabriel's Conspiracy. The writer goes on to claim that the potential for violence remains and that Virginia must address the problem, arguing against a gradual emancipation plan presented by St. George Tucker and instead providing his own blueprint for long-term white supremacy. Some spelling has been modernized.

Transcription from Original

For the Virginia Gazette.

To His Excellency Governor Monroe.


Impressed with a grateful sense of the essential services you rendered the state as its chief magistrate, at a most trying and perilous crisis, I take the permission to pay this tribute of respect to you, and join the public voice in acknowledging, that by your vigilance, zeal, activity, and wisdom, you saved the commonwealth not only from receiving any detriment, but from total subvertion and ruin—your conduct on this occasion (I mean the servile insurrection, the last of August) will forever be recorded to your honor in the annals of your country.

you have now with you the collected wisdom of the state in session at Richmond; on these bodies their constituents now place their confidence, and tr[u]st they will steadily look the danger in the face; that they will repel the repetition of plots, by efficient means, and not incite them by a hesitating, a compromising conduct, and by half measures, always indicative of weakness and timidity—they will deceive themselves, sir, if they consider the present calm, as a security against future storms; rather let what has happened, be a warning of what may happened.

When I contemplate, that but for the interposition of Providence, and your exertions, that you, sir, the supreme executive magistrate and your council would have been the first victims;* that next would have followed, the most worthy, the most venerable, and most important characters; your rich merchants, your wealthiest citizens of every description; that all your rich stores and store houses, your capitol, your treasury, your arms, your arsenals, all circumstances of war, which could have afforded life to their projects and completion to their schemes, would have fallen into the hands of these servile insurgents, stimulated by lust, rapine, and revenge; when I only contemplate this scene, which, God be praised! was not acted, my mind is filled with terror, and calls to its recollection, the dreadful scenes, which have been realized in the rich cities and fertile plains of St. Domingo.†

Great and imminent as was the danger the metropolis, nay the whole state escaped on that night, there are men, not destitute of understanding and experience, but under such infatuation and blindness, as to speak of it with a cold, phlegmatic indifference—consider it as a trifling occurrence, as nothing formidable—hold the negroes (as an enemy) in contempt—alledge their inferiority of numbers, and want of courage, vaunt, that one white man is equal to ten blacks, and by such assertions bring up their minds to the persuasion that all is over, and deserves no deeper attention that we pay to a transient storm in summer of thunder and lightning; they absurdly think, their remotion from the scene of danger, a security against dangers, but I can assure such illiteral egotism, that its principal characteristic, is ubiquity: it pervades the whole country, nay, every house, no place can plead the privilege of exemptions, no person can repose in security and safety pernoctal nobiscum, pecegratur, nesticatur [pernoctat nobiscum, peregrinatur, rusticatur?], since this event (though I have for many years anticipated it, as many of my most intimate friends can testify), though possessing the political power of a common citizen, I have considered myself, as in a great measure, bereaved of the blessings of civil liberty, namely, "security of property and safety of person and of life." It were fruitless to investigate the causes of this late servile insurrection; they are superficial and level to the conception of any man, who reflects at all on the subject: suffice it to say, they may be found in the very spirit of our government; but, it is both our duty and to our purpose, now, that the effects are apparent, to search for and apply remedies in counteraction of the evil. There are paradoxes in all human systems of government, and it is one in our's; "the existence of slavery in one of the freest republics on earth." In Athens there was a custom no less remarkable; it was this, "if any citizen proposed a law, and it proved injurious to the community in its operation, he was subjected to the ostracism or to death." In Rome the senatus consultum, which had only the force of a law might at any time be sit aside by a plebiscetum, yet such was the respect paid by the people in the virtuous days of that commonwealth to their senate, that their decrees were seldom set aside, nor ever treated with contempt, "till the last age of the republic: in Engla[n]d, the pressing of seamen is established as law by judge Foster, (a decision which has never been questioned) than which no measure more arbitrary can be conceived, nor more in contravention to their constitution of government. Necessity, the s[a]lvation of the state from an open enemy, are the only arguments adduced, in palliation of this violence on the personal liberty of the subject.

I have considered the subject of emancipation with all the sobriety in my power, and find, on all sides, so many perplexities, that I could never bring up my mind to any satisfactory conclusion on it. The project proposed by a learned judge, seemed to me the most feasible: he advised a gradual emancipation of females, born after such a period, so as to effect a completion of his plan in the course of a century; but when he had advanced thus far, he halted, and was at a loss to allot to these people their ration in our social system: to invest them with all the civil rights and political power, of the citizen and freeholder, was not his intention, nor, that they and the white people should coalesce by intermarriage; to prevent the possibility of this connection, and of these enjoyments of civil privileges, they were to be sent out of the country; but where, how, and at whose expence was not detailed: the scheme was impracticable, it surpassed the abilities of this very enlightened gentleman to extricate it from the embarrassments with which it was encompassed—the amis des noirs (the friends of the blacks) in Paris (who by the bye ruined St. Domingo); the amis des noirs in Pennsylvania and Baltimore and other towns of America, who are exciting our negroes to cut our throats; the friends of the blacks in the Old Jewry in London, all agree, "that a general emancipation of this class of people in their present state of ignorance, instead of a blessing, would prove to them a source of misfortune and ruin." As well as I recollect, the learned judge concurred in this opinion; but none of them inform us, how they are to be instructed, nor at what schools, nor from what funds. Look at the condition of your few free schools in this country, a support for which in land has been supplied (and very good land in some parishes) by the bounty of some pious christians, and see how it is prostituted: schools, in many instances there are none; the lands are rented out to the man for pillage, fuel, or any other purpose, at not half their value; to that, at the same low rate, though fine low grounds, universally, the schools (where they are not absolutely neglected) do not flourish: when such is the condition of your poor white children's education, is it to be expected, that a more zealous attention will be paid to that of your emancipated blacks? to entertain such an idea is absurdity and folly! to mention it barely, is to scout it.

Another plan of disposing of these people has been suggested to me by a worthy gentleman, high in the esteem of the public, and probably at this moment, filling a dignified situation in the home of delegates; namely to settle them on lands of the United States in the western country: the policy and practicability of this scheme may both be questioned. Are we sure, that the government of the United States would cede a territory for this purpose? and, is it clear, if such a cession were made, that you could bring the holders of this species of property to consent to their migration, and to give up such a large proportion of it? is it not to require too exalted a degree of virtue from the creatures of our imperfect humanity? let us grant, that we consent to this relinquishment of our property, and give to the scheme every aid we can; would it be policy to plant an enemy on your frontiers infinitely more formidable than the one you have thence expelled? would you leave them after they had arrived at this land of promise, to settle and govern themselves? anarchy and fa-

* In such an event, has the law invested in any body of men, either military or civil power to act for the suppression of the insurgency, or to take any measures for the safety of the state after their excision?

† Four or five years ago, I wrote what I am about to copy—"The recent transactions of St. Domingo, read to Virginia and the states of Carolina a lesson with a warning voice: read the catalogue of miseries detailed by the commissioners from that ill-fated Island, to the national assembly—the conflagration of their finest towns—the ruins of their best conditioned estates—their country laid waste—the hand of the assassin as actively employed as the bayonet of the soldier—all the horrors of war aggravated tenfold by the motley composition of their levies—all colours and all descriptions of persons—white and black—freemen and slaves—these in the hour of victory, giving to their lust its utmost scope, committing on the persons of the lov[l]iest women, the wives and daughters of their master, the indiscriminate construpration—prolonging the lives of these for the sole purpose of making them eye witnesses of these horrid violations of their dearest connections, who were consigned to the same fate by the hands of these infernal butchers, after they had given satiety to the lust." Since writing this in 1795, Mr. Edwards has published the history of St. Domingo, which I presume to recommend the 2d to the 8th chapter, inclusive, to the perusal of my countrymen, at this present moment. I cannot refrain copying from Mr. Edwards the following anecdote, which decency induced him to veil in a learned language, and which the same motive prohibits me from translating—(a) Mauduito, vix mortuo, unus de militibus, dum cadaver calidum, et cruore ad huc madidum, inpavimentumecclesiæ episcopalis jacuit sicam distringens, genitalia coram populo obscedit, et membra truncate in cistam componens, ad fænunam nobilem quam amicam Mauduito statuit, ut legatum de mortuo attulit."—See p. 57. 4to Ed.

(a) Mauduit, a proper name.

— page 2 —

mine would be the certain consequences.‡

A third plan, more visionary than either of those we have already examined, is this, "that the government of the United States should be the purchasers of them, and give their owners stock in the funds to nearly their value." To this project, it is presumable, neither party would ever consent—Virginia alone possesses nearly 300,000; at the moderate average price of £35 each, the sum would amount to ten millions five hundred thousand pounds; to such an increase of the national debt, if the interested states would consent, the disinterested never would. But here, alas! the expence does not terminate: They are to be transported at the public cost: Where? to Botany Bay, or, Siena-Leona? Will Great Britain consent to this? Grant she does; what do you suppose the expence of transportation would be? Greatly more than the first purchase of them. The author of the treaties "on the Police of London," in the sixth edition, says, the expence of transporting 3765 convicts to Botany Bay, cost the nation one million sterling; each convict £180 sterling—Surely, Sir, I have not misapplied the epithet visionary, by affixing it to this scheme—Difficulty, infinite difficulty, surrounds us on all sides, when we turn our mind to the contemplation of this momentous subject. How cruel and injurious then are the reproaches of our fellow citizens, in the other states, (where none of this species of property is held) against us, for retaining these people in a state of bondage, from which it seems almost a moral impracticability to extricate them! In the sequel it will appear, that no culpability ought to attach to us on this account. As they are treated in Virginia (generally speaking) to call them slaves, is a harsh term; they are, in truth, only black servants: In this condition we must keep them. No position is more clear to me, that this, "that their emancipation (could it be effected without endangering the lives and liberty of the whites) would not promote the cause of freedoms." Let us endeavor to penetrate the probable result of emancipation—It is agreed by all, who either write or speak on the subject, that a mixture of blacks and whites, with co-equal power and co-equal rights, can never exist together in the same political society. Rigaud, the leader of the free mulattoes in St. Domingo, ten years ago, openly declared, "that the then clam was transient and deceitful, and that no peace would be permanent, until one class of people had exterminated the other."||—Alas! Sir, that ill-fated Island has proved the truth of this declaration. Suppose that we were to come to the determination to withdraw from them all the power we hold over them, would this satisfy them? No! they would then contend for an elevation of privileges, and all the rights of civil liberty; concede these, and you would only open the door for increased demands: They would the require a full share of political power—give them this also, and they would not be satisfied: Liberty and Equality would be the order of the day—Not equality of rights; not a free and open access to all honors and emoluments in the state would gratify their ambition. No, Sir, they would then claim an equal share of property, and when they had acquired this, an eternal contest would ensue for superiority and rule. "No peace would be permanent, until one class of people exterminated the other." Different, most probably, would be the result here from that in St. Domingo, (after years of conflict, and no interference of European powers) but what would these people gain by their freedom? Extermination from the land, after the lives of thousands of our people had been sacrificed in the contest. There would be surely, Sir, more cruelty than kindness, in relinquishing the power we now exercise over them—it must not, it cannot be abandoned; the first law of nature, self preservation, forbids it; policy, I may add, lenity, forbids; every consideration, for their sake, as well as ours, forbids it. Would our subjugation, or their extermination (there is no other alternative) advance the cause of liberty, or enlarge the boundaries of freedom?

The most difficult part of my task is next to be undertaken, and I address myself, to the inadequate performance of it, with fear and trembling. What means, the most efficient, and most consistent with sound policy and wisdom, can be suggested and adopted in prevention, of these servile plots and insurrections?" Hic labor, hocopus. First, larger powers must be conferred on the government and council, than they are at present vested with; they must be adequate to the exigency, with a great liberality of discretion; on information well grounded of any plot being meditated, they should be enabled to proceed in the most summary manner, and, if their first efforts should prove unsuccessful, they should be armed with power to call out the military force, outlaw the mulattoes, and black rebels and insurgents, and proceed against them, as though military law were proclaimed; they should not be bound down to wait 'till war was actually levied, but a consulting, compassing, or imagining the death of their masters: or any put in authority over them, or any of the people of a different class from themselves, should warrant the Executive in taking measures to suppress and quash them in embryo.

2dly. The county lieutenants must have some discretionary power lodged with them to exercise on such an emergency; and the militia throughout the state should be put on the best footing, well armed, and well disciplined. To effect this most desirable object, the military gentlemen, now in the assembly, will lend their assistance.

3dly. The law of outlawry ought to be re-enacted—it operated in terrorem, never was acted upon ad extrenum in my memory, and while it was in force, not one negro ran away, where ten do now: The reason for its repeal was to be sure a most sound one—that "it was a disgrace to our code." As though slave[r]y, in that sense, were none to it, which occurred in almost every page.

4thly. There must be an extension of the powers of corporations and corporation courts—Every inhabitant who is a housekeeper in any city or town, should render to the court of corporation once a month a list of his family and inmates—their ages, their sex, their occupation—Every tavern keeper and boarding house should render one to the mayor every week: In the counties this return should be made once every two months to the county courts. All suspicious houses should be liable to search. By such a police you would rid your towns and cities of those pests of society, "the lazy free negroes and mulattoes," and would presently detect receivers of stolen goods, and other persons who were indebted for a livelihood to means not honest.

5thly. To the free people of colour, it will not be politic to enlarge their political power. The first paralyzing stroke St. Domingo received, from which she never recovered, was the fatal decree of the national assembly of the 15th of May, 1791, by which the people of color in the French colonies, born of free parents, were entitled, as of right, and should be allowed, the enjoyment of all the principles of French citizens, and among others, of having votes in the choice of representatives, and of being eligible to seats both in the Parochial and Colonial Assemblies."—A similar law would have here a similar effect. Never should a free negro or mulatto, from any part of the globe, be permitted to emigrate into this state; and the access of emancipation should not be so open and unguarded, as it is as present. No person should be permitted to set them free, (that is, turn them loose on society) without making an ample provision for them, unless it be for extraordinary services and some singular instances of merit; nor then should their emancipation be complete, without the consent of the Governor and Council.

6thly. As we have a lasting enemy in our bowels, which it seems not possible to eviscerate, would it not be wise in our general government to afford as a force to keep this enemy in subjection? In these four southern states there ought to be distributed four regiments of infantry and two of cavalry, and disposed in our principal cities and towns, as a rallying point for our militia, which, as I have before observed, ought to be well trained and well armed—Let not gentlemen be alarmed, and cry out, this is to recommend a standing army—No, Sir, it is only a small force I would advise to have kept up constantly, to keep under a constant enemy; and such a force must be kept up. I would ask, if it be possible to have forts, depots for arms, arsenals, without soldiers to protect them; and if this be not more indispensable in a country, where you have slaves and free people of colour, who have testified the spirit of revolt, than in one, where there is no such description of persons, and no such avowed enemy? However, if this plan be not approved, levy, train, and accoutre your militia; this you may rely on, that levies of militia will be found much more burthensome, both to the pockets and persons of the citizens, than the plan I propose.—Smith, Paley, Mitchell, Stuart, have convinced me, that, "in a free country, an army, properly organized, will not be so grievous to the people, as frequent evocations of the militia; of husbandmen, labourers, mechanics, tradesmen, and manufacturers, whose subsistence, by their absence from their proper business, may be destroyed."—It is time, Sir, to conclude this letter, which is running into prolixity, and no longer offend against the public good, by drawing your attention to it, when characters of higher importance, and who are keepers of the seals of popularity, may be offering suggestions of much profounder wisdom, than any which can originate from me.—My only object is the public good, and the general safety of our citizens, whether any matter here offered to your consideration, and to that of the general Legislature of the country, will have that tendency, all trying time can alone determine. In your and their decision, I shall, with all deference and respect, acquiesce, under this persuasion, that, as their resolutions and measures will be adopted with moderation, so they will be supported with firmness.


December 10, 1800.

‡ Mr. Edwards proves this from the Charebs in St. Vincents and the Maroons in Jamaica—left to themselves in ever so fine a fertile a country, they will be savages, lazy, idle, ignorant, and ferocious; cruel, in short in a condition of worse than when they were in a state of slavery—Vide Hist. of St. Domingo, p. 191, and also, Park's travels in Africa.

|| See history of St. Domingo, p. 46.