Thomas Jefferson Papers

52. A Bill concerning Servants, 18 June 1779

52. A Bill concerning Servants

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that all white persons, not being citizens of any of the confederating states of America, who shall come into this commonwealth under contract to serve another in any trade, or occupation, shall be compellable to perform such contract specifically during the term thereof, or during so much of the same as shall not exceed seven years. Infants under the age of fourteen years, brought in under the like contract, entered into with the consent of their father or guardian, shall serve till their age of twenty one years only, or for such shorter term as the said contract shall have fixed.

The said servants shall be provided, by their master, with wholesome and sufficient food, clothing and lodging; and at the end of their service, if they shall not have contracted for any reward, other than transportation, food, clothing and lodging, shall receive from him one new and complete suit of clothing, suited to the season of the year, to wit, a coat, waistcoat, pair of breeches and shoes, two pair of stockings, two shirts, a hat and blanket.

The benefit of the said contract of service shall be assignable by the master to any person to whom the servant shall, in the presence of a Justice of the Peace, freely consent that it shall be assigned, the said Justice attesting such free consent in writing; and shall also pass to the executors, administrators, and legatees of the master.

Any such servant being lazy, disorderly, guilty of misbehaviour to his master or in his master’s family, shall be corrected by stripes on order from the court1 of the county wherein he resides, or refusing to work shall be compelled thereto in like manner; and moreover shall serve two days for every one he shall have so refused to serve, or shall otherwise have lost without sufficient justification. All necessary expences incurred by any master for apprehending and bringing home any absconding servant shall be repaid by further service after such rates as the court2 shall direct; unless such servant shall give security, to be approved of by the court, for repayment in money within six months after he shall be free from service, and shall accordingly pay the same.

If any master shall fail in the duties prescribed by this act, or shall be guilty of injurious demeanor towards his servant it shall be redressed on motion by the court2 of the county wherein the servant resides, by immediate discharge from service, if the injury were gross, or by a specific order for a change in his demeanor, and a discharge from service if such order be disobeyed.

All contracts between master and servant during the time of service shall be void.

Report description begins Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in MDCCLXXVI, Richmond, 1784 description ends , p. 41. Text of Act as adopted is in Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xii, 190–1.

Bill presented by Madison 31 Oct. 1785, passed by the House 1 Dec., amended by the Senate, and amendment agreed to by House 9 Dec. (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1785, 1828 edn., p. 12–15, 64, 68, 78, 133). The text of Act as adopted agrees with Bill as proposed except for differences noted below and except for addition of a final clause putting it into effect 1 Jan. 1787. See the Act of 1753 for the better government of servants and slaves (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends vi, 356–69).

1Act reads: “from a justice of the county, city, or corporation”; this of course simplified the procedure for the master and made it easier to obtain permission to correct a servant.

2The Act reads: “court of the county, city, or corporation.”

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