Virginia Laws Concerning Servitude, Slavery, and Race, 1639-1723

Learning Goal: I’m working on a history multi-part question and need a sample draft to help me learn.

Do you agree with argument that Bacon’s Rebellion (1675-76) was a major turning point in Virginia’s shift toward becoming a slave society, with racism fully instituted in its laws? Or does the evidence from this week’s readings tell you something else?

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To answer this question, you first need to carefully watch the argument, and then you need to think about the nature of the laws you’re reading concerning race and slavery before and after Bacon’s Rebellion. There is no doubt that laws concerning slavery were already solidifying the institution before Bacon’s Rebellion. But do you think these laws before 1675 were designed to also create a strict race-based society by institutionalizing a kind of racism that elevated all white Virginians over all Blacks in Virginia? Or do we only see such attempts to create this kind of systematic racism in Virginia after Bacon’s Rebellion? In other words, do the nature and goals of the laws change after Bacon’s Rebellion, or do you see a more natural evolution of laws whose development seem to have little relation to Bacon’s Rebellion?

Reference specific laws as you make your case…

Virginia Laws Concerning Servitude, Slavery, and Race, 1639-1723


As you read these early Virginia laws concerning servitude, slavery, and race, think about how these concepts evolved over the 17th century and into the early 18th.What did servitude and slavery have in common?In what ways were they differentiated over time?What factor did race play in the laws concerning servitude and slavery?How was racial difference written into the laws?How did these laws affect free blacks?Was institutionalized racism against Blacks present from the early days of Africans in Virginia, or was it something that emerged over time?Do you think Bacon’s Rebellion (1675-76) marked a turning point in the institutionalization of racism in Virginia, or did the laws passed after this event merely enhance a racism that was already present by the 1660s?

Reading Questions:

1) How can this series of laws help us come to a fuller understanding of the early history of Virginia?Of the history of slavery in Virginia?Of race in Virginia?Of indentured servitude?

2) What similarities do you see between the treatment of black slaves and white servants?What differences?How do these change over time, if at all?

3) What does the appearance of a new law suggest to us about the prior condition of slaves and servants in Virginia?For example, what might the 1670 law prescribing that “all servants not being christians imported into this colony by shipping shalbe slaves for their lives” suggest to us about the condition of servants of African origin prior to 1670?What do the other new laws (and the perceived necessity for these new laws) suggest about what life was like for servants and slaves before they were passed?

4) Why do you think the 1691 law declared free blacks “great inconveniences”?Why were free blacks seen as problematic to Virginia by 1691? Does this suggest their existence was not consider a problem earlier in the century?

January 1639/40-ACT X.

[This statute created a legal distinction between white and black men.]

ALL persons except negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined at pleasure of the Governor and Council.

March 1660/1-ACT XXII. English running away with negroes.

[This law indicates that some Africans and their descendants were not servants for life. However, if an indentured servant ran away with a black person who was considered a servant for life, the white servant had to serve additional time to compensate a master (or masters) for his/her absence and for the absence of the black individual.]

BEE itt enacted That in case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes who are incapable of makeing satisfaction by addition of time, Bee it enacted that the English so running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act.

March 1661/2-ACT CXXXVIII. Concerning Indians.

[The legislators decided that Native American and English servants were to serve their masters the same length of time.]

And be it further enacted that what Englishman, trader, or other shall bring in any Indians as servants and shall assigne them over to any other, shall not sell them for slaves nor for any longer time than English of the like ages should serve by act of assembly.

December 1662-ACT XII. Negro women’s children to serve according to the condition of the mother.

[As of December 1662, the child of an enslaved mother was also a slave for life. The statute was a dramatic departure from the English tradition in which a child received his or her status from his or her father. Members of the General Assembly also hoped that an increased fine would discourage white men and women from having sexual partners who were African or of African descent.]

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.

September 1667-ACT III. An act declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.

[The passage of this statute indicates that Christianity was important to the concept of English identity. Legislators decided that slaves born in Virginia could not become free if they were baptized, but masters were encouraged to Christianize their enslaved laborers.]

WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffreedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.

October 1669-ACT I. An act about the casuall killing of slaves.

[Colonial leaders decided that corporal punishment was the only way in which a master could correct a slave since his or her time of service could not be extended. This law represents the loss of legal protection for a slave’s life in Virginia. It also was the first of several laws passed during the last thirty years of the seventeenth century that reduced the personal rights of black men and women.]

WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistris or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them by other then violent meanes supprest, Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accompted ffelony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther ffelony) should induce any man to destroy his owne estate.

October 1670-ACT IV. Noe Negroes nor Indians to buy christian servants.

WHEREAS it hath beene questioned whither Indians or negroes manumited, or otherwise free, could be capable of purchasing christian servants, It is enacted that noe negroe or Indian though baptised and enjoyned their owne ffreedome shall be capable of any such purchase of christians, but yet not debarred from buying any of their owne nation.

October 1670-ACT XII. What tyme Indians to serve.

[This law created an additional distinction between African Americans and Native Americans. It was an attempt to make lifetime servitude the normal condition for all Africans imported into Virginia. The legislators repealed this statute in November 1682.]

WHEREAS some dispute have arisen whither Indians taken in warr by any other nation, and by that nation that taketh them sold to the English, are sevants for life or terme of yeares, It is resolved and enacted that all servants not being christians imported into this colony by shipping shalbe slaves for their lives; but what shall come by land shall serve, if boyes or girles, untill thirty yeares of age, if men or women twelve yeares and no longer.