Phil Schwarz

"God Damn the King and the Governor too!"
James, after being given a pardon by benefit of clergy

    Dr. Philip J.  Schwarz, of Virginia Commonwealth University and Director of the Stratford Hall Seminar on Slavery  lectured on slave laws of Virginia.  He asked the seminarians to examine the "traps" and subtle nuances of each.    The answers are a combination of seminarian responses and Phil's comments.  This page is linked to an outline of the lecture that gives the text of each law.

Q. Why did white Virginians and others bother with laws of slavery?   Slavery was about domination. Why was it necessary to codify the institution?

   A. English rule of law to be applied to the situation.
        Gave justification to practice
        Protection for their own property.
        Idea of who could be enslaved changed and needed to be codified.
        Between 1619-1662 no clear laws about slavery.
        No laws makes for an unstable society. Rational laws for an irrational institution. Cannot make a human being into a thing.
       Laws were complex because slavery was an unpredictable and complicated relationship that lawmakers tried to control and make predictable

Q.  Law of 1662 determined that the child of a woman enslaved shall also be enslaved.  Why establish this law?

    A. Historically the father determined status of child.  Free white men as fathers caused a problem.
    Economics gave a better return if mother determined status.  Each new child increased the capital of the owner.
    Law also provided for a fine if a white fathered child with a slave, but slaves could not testify in cases involving white people, so laws were symbolic.

Q.  Law Concerning Conversion, 1667 established that  baptism would not alter bondage.  Why establish this law?

    A.   Protected capital investment
           Prior to that time, some  slaves were Christians when they arrived in New World. By tradition,
           Christians did not enslave Christians.

Q.  Laws of Control (1669) declared any unintended killing of a slave accidental. Why establish this law?

    A.   Makes any accidental killing of slaves beyond prosecution by definition since no man would "destroy his own estate."
          If  an owner kills a slave of another owner, a settlement could be made.  Phil has never seen a legal action taken by  one owner against another for that action.

Q. Oyer and Terminer Court, 1692 .

    A.   (Year of Salem Witch trials which were under commission of Oyer (hear)  and terminer (determine/termination)).
           If slaves were condemned to execution, owner could appeal on fact.  Allows for recourse that could lead to pardons for slave and protection of owners' property.

Q. "Definition" laws.  Why establish these laws?

A. Who could be made a slave. Combined white assumptions:   white superiority, African inferiority; slavery justified and therefore enforceable and children born of one African and one European parent are  "spurious issue."

Q.  Property Laws.  Why establish these laws?

A. No basis in English common law for laws on slaves, so House of Burgesses sought to codify slaves as property. By the eighteenth century slaves were declared personal property that could  be inherited, attached, sold, or disposed of.
     All colonial  laws were supposed to be approved by King and Council.  Unless laws affected Crown, they were approved  as a matter of course.

Case Study Trial of Accomac County, 1775.  Why would Luther Martin defend?

A.    Preserved formal ritual of law.
        Trying a slave involves some recognition of humanity; contradiction of definition as property.
        Needed to contradict themselves in order to the keep system going.
        Customary law was sometimes employed to let masters settle issue outside of courts.
        Luther Martin delayed the case until it was dropped.  Who knows why?

Case Study from 1775.

Took place after Lord Dunmore said any slave who defended the crown would be free.  Was tried as a capital crime.  Little danger he would be executed for theft, but he was convicted and  given benefit of  clergy .  One time a slave can plead benefit of clergy and be pardoned. Usually branded to mark. Pre-Revolution fervor of colonists made the traditional recitation of "God save the King," by the pardoned a problem.   Shouted "God Damn the king and the Governor too!" Public thought this was endearing not  contempt.  It was kept out of the court record but appeared in the newspapers.