Study Guide

Colonial Virginia Analysis

  • Law

    Racializing Slavery

    In 1705, Virginia's General Assembly passed a law aimed at sorting out some of the confusion surrounding the colony's various forms of servitude. 

    "All servants imported and brought into the Country...who were not Christians in their native Country...shall be accounted and be slaves,"blank">peculiar institution."

  • Race

    The White Virginian's Burden

    By the end of the colonial era, white Virginians often described slavery as a tragic burden, an unfortunate practice left to them by their ancestors.

    They hated the institution as much, and probably more, they claimed, than the outsiders who didn't witness its horrors on a daily basis. But they were stuck with it, they lamented, saddled through their lives with the sin of their ancient relatives.

    It was a curious position. Part apologetic, part apology. 

    But uh, it was disingenuous, if not flat out dishonest. Slavery wasn't really the product of Virginia's distant past, and it wasn't reluctantly inherited by a more enlightened generation. The slavery these Revolutionary-era Virginians practiced developed in their own century—to a large extent in their own time—and they bore equal, if not greater responsibility for its continuing existence.

    17-Century Origins

    To be fair, the first evidence of Virginia slavery does lie in the mid-17th century. 

    While the colony's first Africans reached Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants, as early as the 1640s, scattered references suggest that Virginians were beginning to treat their Black servants differently than their white ones. And by 1660, it's clear that the most fundamental characteristics of American slavery had emerged. Africans were held in bondage permanently and they passed on their status to their children.

    It's also in the late-17th century that we can identify those critical factors that would accelerate the transition from a white indentured labor force to slavery. For example, during the last decades of the 17th century, the supply of white servants decreased as England's economy improved. During these decades, Virginia's mortality rates also improved enough to make slave labor a profitable investment.

    Prior to this time, the likelihood that a slave would live long enough to enable a buyer to recapture his initial cash outlay wasn't great. Only about half of all laborers, indentured or enslaved, survived their first five years in Virginia. Given this stark fact, why would a planter purchase a slave when he could buy an indentured servant, with a five-year term, at half the price?

    And finally, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 reminded planters of the dangers attached to importing a large number of white indentured servants. Eventually, these men became free—and often disgruntled—small farmers. There was no need to provide rabble-rousers like Nathaniel Bacon with an even larger pool of rabble.

    By 1700, these factors had encouraged Virginia planters to turn to African slave labor. In this sense, the ever-suffering pose adopted by the planters of the Revolutionary era was a bit correct. But still, the practice of slavery developed slowly during its earliest years. There were probably no more than 2,000 slaves in all of Virginia in 1675, and the slave ships that begin traveling to the Chesapeake during these decades only brought a couple hundred slaves each year, not thousands.

    Your Burden? What About Slaves' Burden?

    But for all the South's use and celebration of violence, it still failed to ensure an efficient and compliant workforce. Even on amoral, practical terms, it proved the worst of tools: too dependent on the skills and will of its users and the cooperative submission of its recipients. 

    Some slaveholders pushed easily beyond the bounds of all humanitarian considerations in disciplining their slaves. William Byrd II used chains, whips, branding, and dismemberment to discipline his slaves. The most troublesome were fitted with a bit, like a horse. 

    But others struggled to find the methods and the strength of will to enforce their demands. And slaves refused to passively acquiesce in the multiple forms and threats of violence. Instead, they found endless methods of testing and resisting, endless ways of demonstrating that force is a poor tool in managing any group of people.

    By the end of the colonial period, many of Virginia's slaveowners were desperately seeking an alternative to the tobacco and slave culture on which they depended. Some thought that shifting from tobacco to wheat would help. Farming wheat was less labor intensive, so it would allow them to sell off many of the slaves they found so difficult to control, and it would reduce their dependence on the institution which, they claimed, tortured their souls.

    Yeah. Sure.

    Others thought that the solution lay in reorganization. By the end of the colonial period, more and more Virginia planters were switching from the gang to the task system. Under the older gang system, slaves worked under the direct command of the owner or overseer. Their day was regulated by the sun, so they worked until the owner or overseer allowed them to stop. 

    But under the task system, slaves were assigned specific duties or chores, and when they completed those chores, their work was done and their time was their own. Of course, owners found ways to fill much of that time, and part of this system meant slaves were made responsible for producing a portion of their own food. Consequently, when their assigned duties were completed, they tended their gardens and livestock.

    Some planters swore by this system. Their slaves, they claimed, worked far more efficiently, and their own managerial chores were simplified. But others feared that this system threatened to undermine the authority and the strict discipline upon which the entire institution of slavery depended. Regulating their own time and working their own gardens, slaves might creep up that spectrum of unfreedom toward a sense of independence and autonomy that couldn't be controlled.

    Slavery was still a deeply entrenched institution in Virginia by the end of the colonial period. It wasn't about to break down under its own weight. And the Southerner's senses of burden or regret weren't strong enough to lead them toward support of anything rash like emancipation. 

    But things weren't right and many Virginians knew it. So, they did the understandable. They passed on the blame. They blamed Virginia's founders. They blamed tobacco, Thomas Jefferson blamed the King of England. 

    But they should've blamed themselves, or perhaps their fathers. For the slavery that they knew was of their making and their "burden" was self-imposed.

  • Politics

    "Swilling the Planters with Bumbo"

    George Washington spent about 50 pounds campaigning for a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1758. But he didn't spend it on advertisements or direct mailings. He didn't hire a campaign manager or a pollster. He spent the 50 pounds on alcohol. 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and two gallons of cider, to be precise.

    The voters he sought to impress were apparently discriminating. But they were also thirsty. The 160 gallons of booze he bought served only 391 voters. Washington won the election, but it cost him about one and a half quarts per vote.blank">slave conspiracies were uncovered, especially during the first third of the 18th century. A periodic demonstration of white power seemed a useful way of nipping these insurrectionary ambitions in the bud. 

    But these militia rituals served as more than demonstrations of military power. They provided regular rituals of racial fraternity—cocky, testosterone-enhanced pageants of racial and masculine posturing participated in by the rich and the poor, celebrating a shared domination over the least powerful members of society.

    Political Opportunities for the Small Guy

    It's clear that Virginia's wealthy planters were able to draw upon a whole range of sources in establishing their political power. The idiosyncrasies of Virginia's economy, social pastimes, regional interests, and racial identity all came together to forge a social ideology that combined fraternity and hierarchy. These combined to create an understanding of the world among white Virginians, both rich and poor, that blended a sense of shared purpose with an acceptance of rigid hierarchies and social deference. 

    Additionally, in consequently presenting themselves as the natural leaders of Virginia society, the wealthy gentry were also able to position themselves as the defenders of representative government, the counterweights to the grasping ambitions of the King's appointed governors.

    Finally, while all this contributed to the wealthy gentry's political dominance, there also existed just enough opportunity within the political system to absorb the ambitious small planter. During the 18th century, the number of county offices and services increased, and so did the ability of smaller planters to access these offices. 

    Formerly monopolized by the wealthier gentry, by 1750, smaller farmers were able to attain low-level county positions as constables, road surveyors, deputy sheriffs, and bridge keepers. And they were able to work their way up within this hierarchy of county offices. Of course, there were limits to how high a person of moderate means could go within Virginia's governmental order. The higher county offices, like tobacco inspector and seats in the House of Burgesses remained attainable only to the wealthier planters. But the political structure was open just enough to absorb and appease the ambitions of the upwardly aspiring among Virginia's small planter class.

    So, when a small farmer stepped up to cast his vote on election day, decades of political, social, and economic development were being expressed. In casting his vote for some member of the gentry, he was also casting a vote for a fellow tobacco farmer, a colleague in the militia, and a neighbor with whom he'd shared a day and a drink at the races. 

    Just as important in that moment, when his name was called and he stepped forward to publicly cast his vote, he was making a statement to the governor, and the King who appointed him, that Virginia's representative government would not be encroached upon during his watch.

    Clearly then, it wasn't just the alcohol. Although the gallons of booze may have helped take the edge off of social and economic differences that actually did separate the rich and the poor in Virginia. 

    But there were enough sources of commonality between the small farmer and the wealthy planter soliciting his vote, that with just a little alcoholic assistance, the small farmer could believe that he was a vital and integrated member of Virginia's political establishment.

  • Religion

    "A Torrent of Sacred Harmony"

    "Sometimes when I have awaked about two or three a-clock in the morning, a torrent of sacred harmony pored into my chamber and carried my mind away to heaven."blank">slave revolts of 1822 and 1831.

    Samuel Davies never saw any of this. He died long before his evangelical message had fully flowered. In fact, he never imagined that the New Light Christianity he preached would pose such a dramatic challenge to slavery. But perhaps, had he listened more closely to the "sacred harmony" pouring from the hearts of his new Christians, he might have heard Gabriel's trumpet getting ready to blow.