Thomas Jefferson Papers

Bill to Prevent the Importation of Slaves, &c., [16 June 1777]

Bill to Prevent the Importation of Slaves, &c.

[16 June 1777]

To prevent more effectually the practice of holding persons in Slavery and importing them into this State1 Be it enacted by the General Assembly that all persons who shall be hereafter imported into this Commonwealth by Sea or by Land whether they were bond or free in their native Country upon their taking the Oath of Fidelity to this Commonwealth shall from thenceforth become free and absolutely exempted from all Slavery or Bondage to which they had been subjected in any other State or Country whatsoever.2 That it shall and may be lawful for any person by Deed duly executed in the presence of two or more Witnesses and acknowledged or proved and recorded in the General Court or Court of the County where he or she resides within eight Months from the making thereof or by their last Will and Testament in writing fully and absolutely to manumit and set at Liberty any Slave or Slaves to which they are entitled,3 But no Slave absconding from the owner who resides in any of the thirteen united States of America, or any other state in amity with them, and coming into this commonwealth, or coming with the owner to dwell here, or attending him as a Servant, or falling to any Inhabitant of this Commonwealth by Marriage Will or Inheritance and not brought to be sold, shall not become free,4 And if any Slave manumitted shall, within years thereafter, become chargeable to a Parish, the former owner, or his Executors or Administrators shall be compelled to reimburse the expenses of his or her maintenance, And so much of the Act of general Assembly made in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and fifty three intitled “an act for the better government of Servants and Slaves” as is contrary to this act, is hereby declared to be repealed.5

MS (Vi). The first half is in the hand of John Tazewell, the remainder in an unidentified hand. Docketed in the same hands: “A Bill to prevent the importation of Slaves into this Commonwealth & for other purposes. 1777. June 16. Read the first Time.”

There is no conclusive proof of TJ’s authorship of this Bill. In his Autobiography, written in 1821, TJ makes the following statement: “this subject was not acted on finally until the year 78. when I brought in a bill to prevent their further importation. This passed without opposition, and stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication” (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends i, 51–2). There is no doubt that TJ erred in thinking the Bill passed without opposition. But Ford goes much further. He states that the earliest step toward limiting importation was the introduction of a bill in Nov. 1777; that the matter was taken up de novo at the Oct. 1778 session, where the Act was adopted before TJ arrived at the General Assembly on 30 Nov.; and that TJ “thus clearly had nothing to do with the first bill, and, as he did not take his seat at the second session till Nov. 30th, it is equally certain he had nothing to do with the one which was adopted” (same, p. 52). There are, however, the following points to be noted: (1) the earliest bill was introduced in the session of May 1777 (though this was done on 11 June and TJ had been granted leave on 20 May for the remainder of the session) and, as the notes below indicate, the Act as adopted in 1778 must have been an amended version of the present document and not, as Ford suggests, an entirely new draft; (2) Ford’s argument assumes that TJ’s mere absence from the House at the time the 1778 bill was introduced or acted upon is conclusive proof of the error of his claim, an untenable assumption in view of the fact that TJ on occasion drafted and submitted a bill for a committee of which he was not a member or even for a legislative body in which he had no seat; e.g., his Bill concerning escheats (4 June 1779) and his Bill providing for a constitution for Virginia in 1776; (3) TJ was extraordinarily scrupulous in making claims to authorship and in respecting the valid claims of others; (4) the famous passage in the Declaration of Independence on the slave trade, though admittedly polemical, was certainly a reflection of TJ’s feelings on the subject, as was his argument in Howell v. Netherland in 1770 in which he argued that “under the law of nature, all men are born free” (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends i, 376); (5) it is also pertinent to call attention to TJ’s assertion in the Autobiography that in 1769 he had suggested to Richard Bland an extension of the protection of certain laws to Negroes (an assertion which Ford also inferentially doubts, basing his inference on the absence of a record in the Journal of the House of Burgesses, though the effort may have been made in the committee of the whole or in some other manner not requiring a record), and at another time gave a detailed account of this effort of 1769 (same, i, 5; see also TJ to Edward Coles, 25 Aug. 1814). In the absence of positive evidence tending to refute TJ’s assertion, the Bill is presented here because no other Virginian of the day had so publicly declared his opposition to the slave trade as had TJ and because the Bill, as drafted, contains a far-reaching statement of purpose in its preamble that would seem consonant with a Jeffersonian origin.

The legislative history of this Bill from June 1777 to final enactment in 1778 is as follows. On 11 June 1777 Isaac Zane, James Henry, and Philip Alexander were given leave to bring in a bill “to prevent the importation of slaves into this Commonwealth, and for other purposes.” Zane reported it on 16 June, when the motion to read it a second time was defeated (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , May 1777, 1827 edn., p. 73, 79; TJ was granted leave of absence on 20 May for the remainder of the session). At the next session, on 8 Nov. 1777, Henry and Starke were ordered to prepare a bill on this subject; the fact that Henry was on the committee and that the title of the bill was precisely the same as that of the May 1777 session indicates merely a revival of the same Bill. Henry reported the Bill on 22 Nov., when it was read the second time and then referred to the committee of the whole. Discussion of the Bill was thereafter postponed seven times until, on 5 Jan. 1778, it was resolved that the committee of the whole would discuss it on 1 Mch. 1778—a date which, as all members knew, would fall after the close of the session (same, Oct. 1777, p. 17, 40, 45, 54, 71, 80, 84, 88, 92, 97, 101; the session ended 24 Jan.). Nothing was done at the May 1778 session to revive the Bill, though TJ was present and took a major part in the legislation that was passed. There was one resolution, however, that concerned Negroes and that TJ may possibly have moved: “That all free negroes or mulattoes, who enlisted, or shall enlist, to serve in the army during the war, shall be entitled to all the rights and privileges enjoyed by any subject of this State” (same, May 1778, p. 10). In view of the legal disadvantage under which persons of color rested, this was a radical proposal. TJ was a member of the committee to which this and other resolutions were referred with directions to bring in a bill or bills. But no separate bill on this proposal was introduced and none of the Acts adopted during the May 1778 session includes such a proviso. The substance of the resolution, however, is quite similar to the effort that TJ later remembered as having suggested to Richard Bland in 1769. The Bill that was finally enacted to limit the importation of slaves was introduced at the next session by Richard Kello, was debated at some length, and was amended both by the House and by the Senate (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1778, 1827 edn., p. 11–13, 19–20, 21, 23, 27, 29). The notes below indicate that the Act as finally adopted was an amended version of the one originally introduced at the May 1777 session and not, as Ford suggests, an entirely new bill. The entire process of enacting the Bill took place between 14 Oct. and 27 Oct., in contrast to the abrupt rejection in June 1777 and the long series of postponements in the Oct. 1777 session. As noted above, TJ did not take his seat until 30 Nov. 1778. Ford concludes from this that TJ had nothing to do with the Bill as finally adopted; despite this, TJ could have persuaded another member to introduce the Bill for him, just as he had done in other instances.

1The Act as adopted merely states its purpose as that of “preventing the farther importation of slaves into this commonwealth” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends ix, 471); the intent to “prevent more effectually the practice of holding persons in Slavery” was, of course, a much more drastic step.

2Instead of this far-reaching proviso, the Act as adopted merely prohibited the importation of slaves by sea or by land.

3The Act as adopted carried no provision for the manumission of slaves.

4The Act as adopted provides for similar exceptions to those enumerated.

5This repealing clause is also in the Act as adopted.

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