Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Monroe, 9 September 1800

From James Monroe

Richmond Sepr. 9. 1800.

Dear Sir

There has been great alarm here of late at the prospect of an insurrection of the negroes in this city and its neighbourhood wh. was discovered on the day when it was to have taken effect. Abt. 30 are in prison who are to be tried on Thursday, and others are daily discovered and apprehended in the vicinity of the city. I have no doubt the plan was formed and of tolerable extensive combination, but hope the danger is passed. The trial will commence on thursday, and it is the opinion of the magistrates who examined those committed, that the whole very few excepted will be condemned. The trial may lead to further discoveries of wh. I will inform you. We have nothing new from abroad. very sincerely I am yr. friend and servt.

Jas. Monroe

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 12 Sep. and so recorded in SJL.

Monroe had spent much of August traveling between Albemarle County, where his young son was seriously ill, and Richmond, where he and the Council of State took steps to quarantine Norfolk for yellow fever. In Richmond on the afternoon of Saturday, 30 Aug., he received information that an insurrection by slaves in the surrounding area would strike the city that night. He communicated with the mayors of Richmond and Petersburg and called out militia to protect the capitol building and public stores of arms and ammunition. Heavy rainfall that made roads and bridges impassable forestalled the beginning of the revolt that night, but Monroe soon received information to convince him that the plan for rebellion was still in place. The legislature was not in session, but with the concurrence of the council on Tuesday, 2 Sep., the governor alerted all Virginia militia regiments and strengthened the guard on key locations in and around the capital city. He also communicated with local civil officials. The evening of 2 Sep. the first group of suspects was brought to Richmond from the vicinity of the Henrico County plantation of Thomas H. Prosser, whose slave Gabriel had been named as the primary leader of the intended revolt. Under Virginia law of more than a century’s standing, the trial of a slave accused of committing a capital offense was to take place without a jury before a court of oyer and terminer assembled for the purpose. According to a 1786 statute, which was a modified version of a bill in the great revision of the state’s law code that TJ and others had drafted some years earlier, a slave could only be condemned to death by unanimous decision of the court of oyer and terminer, and the state would compensate the owner for the value of the executed slave. The first executions for participation in the conspiracy occurred on Friday, 12 Sep. (Monroe, Writings description begins Stanislaus Murray Hamilton, ed., The Writings of James Monroe, New York, 1898–1903, 7 vols. description ends , 3:201–3, 216, 234–8, 242; CVSP description begins William P. Palmer and others, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers … Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond, Richmond, 1875–93, 11 vols. description ends , 9:134; Ammon, Monroe description begins Harry Ammon, James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity, New York, 1971 description ends , 185–7; Philip J. Schwarz, Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865 [Baton Rouge, 1988], 17–18, 25; Vol. 2:616–17).

The magistrates who first collected information from the slaves taken into custody were Gervas Storrs and Joseph Selden. Earlier in the year Storrs, a member of the Virginia Republicans’ general committee, had been elected to the House of Delegates from Henrico County, to take his seat when the assembly convened in December. Selden, who in 1800 was on the Republican corresponding committee for Henrico County, would join Storrs in the assembly in 1803 (CVSP description begins William P. Palmer and others, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers … Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond, Richmond, 1875–93, 11 vols. description ends , 9:77–8, 138; James Sidbury, Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730–1810 [New York, 1997], 123; Leonard, General Assembly description begins Cynthia Miller Leonard, comp., The General Assembly of Virginia, July 30, 1619-January 11, 1978: A Bicentennial Register of Members, Richmond, 1978 description ends , 219–20, 232; Monroe to TJ, 23 Apr. 1800).

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