a convention of all-male, all-white Virginia gentry adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in June 1776
Source: Library of Virginia, Adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights
There is no moral basis for slavery as seen through modern eyes. The enslaved considered it wrong from the beginning, while some religious groups grew to oppose slavery and in the 1700's. The Quakers ultimately prohibited members from being slaveowners. Protestant denominations in Virginia split from their Northern counterparts in the 1800's and declared the "peculiar institution" to be moral.
The Tidewater gentry depended upon free labor for increasing wealth of white households. Slavery was essential to the plantation economy, and fully accepted within the white colonial culture. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop which wore out the soil in only a few years in the days before artificial fertilizers. Virginians had lots of available land, and the limiting factor was labor. Importing Africans, often after they had been "seasoned" or proven resistant to disease after a stay on Caribbean Islands, provided the missing labor until natural increase created a sufficient supply of black men, women, and children to meet demand.
Simply acquiring labor was not sufficient. Creating a legal framework for slavery, so no wages had to be paid for agricultural labor, increased the profits of the slaveowner. During the 1600's, Virginians passed laws to define slavery as a lifetime condition - and determined that children of female slaves would also be slaves for life.
The Spanish, who faced a similar challenge with a shortage of labor for their colonial estates, crafted the encomienda system to regulate the use of indigenous people for uncompensated labor. Under pressure from the Catholic Church, however, the Spanish did not establish hereditary slavery for Native Americans. Instead, a system of peonage evolved. Workers were kept so deep in debt they were obligated to work in perpetuity. In Mexico and other Spanish colonies, the people taking unfair advantage of indigenous labor were less involved in controlling the personal lives of the workers, in contrast to the owners of slaves in British North America. Children of Spanish-controlled workers were not the property of the employer that could be sold despite the family's objections.
In England, Lord Mansfield ruled in the Somerset Case in 1772 that a slave purchased in America, then transported to England, could not be shipped to Jamaica as a slave against his will. In Lord Mansfield's opinion, since Parliament had not expressly passed laws defining slavery as legal, slavery was not consistent with the protections of human freedom in English common law. The decision did not abolish slavery in the colonies, or limit the slave trade between Africa and the New World, but after the Somerset Case different moral standards in England vs. America were reflected in the laws regarding slavery.
By the start of the American Revolution, the Virginia House of Burgesses was totally committed to retaining slavery as a fundamental part of Virginia society. By the time of the American Revolution, Virginia politicians had been crafting slave codes for a century. They created new law governing slavery. Slavery was not part of the common law in England, so Virginia's codes were based in part on Caribbean island practices.
On the eve of the American Revolution, Virginia plantation owners were conscious of the threat that enslaved people would support the British and be a threat to the rebellious Americans. James Madison wrote in 1774:1
When the Virginia gentry chose to split from England, they wrote a constitution that created a new, independent state. The Virginia Convention that approved the constitution in June, 1776 was an elected body that had replaced the House of Burgesses. That convention chose to adopt the new fundamental law without submitting it to a vote of the people - and even if there had been a vote on popular ratification, slaves would not have been permitted to participate.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights that preceded adoption of the state constitution in 1776 included language that declared white residents of the colony should be politically free from England, while still preventing black slaves from gaining personal freedom. George Mason's original draft was edited by the convention, because his initial language was too broad in its declaration of rights:2
The convention restricted the "all men" statement, adding the qualifying phrase "when they enter into a state of society" so the first article read (underline added):3
As defined by the Virginia elite, slaves were more in a "state of nature" and not full members of society. That distinction allowed Virginians fighting for liberty from British oppression to justify continuing racially-defined slavery, unaltered.
prizing tobacco into a hogshead, before rolling to a wharf for export overseas
Source: Edward King, The Great South (page 634-635)
The western Virginians were inclined to be loyalists, because they were opposed to economic domination by the Tidewater planters. At the start of the American Revolution, Lord Dunmore provided slaves in Tidewater Virginia an even more-powerful incentive to support the British - freedom, if they could manage to reach his forces.
Lord Dunmore wrote a proclamation on November 7, 1775 that encouraged slaves to fight for the British, and promised them freedom in exchange. He issued it publicly after the British victory at Kemp's Landing on November 15, 1775. The royal governor said:4
The Virginia planters tried to block slaves from joining Dunmore, and issued their response a month later. The Virginia Declaration issued on December 14, 1775 threatened execution of any slave who joined Dunmore, but offered amnesty to any who changed their mind and willingly returned to "their duty."
Over 800 and up to 2,000 slaves managed to join Dunmore, though his authority was limited to Norfolk and then Gwynn's Island until the British governor sailed away seven months later in July, 1776. Dunmore (like Lincoln in 1862) did not indiscriminately free the slaves. Only those able and willing to bear Arms were invited to join him, not women, children, or those too old or infirm to fight.5
Virginians quickly highlighted that Dunmore's Proclamation did not free enslaved people unable to serve in the British military
Source: Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter), November 25, 1775 (page 3)
Dunmore assembled his Ethiopian Regiment, which fought at the battle of Great Bridge. Some black soldiers managed to flee with Dunmore from his last base on Gwynn's Island to New York in 1776. The Ethiopian Regiment did not continue as a military unit in the British army after the evacuation of Gwynn's Island.
Those who survived disease on the island, but were abandoned when Dunmore fled, were re-enslaved when captured by the Virginians. In 1779, when Sir George Collier raided Hampton Roads, 518 blacks managed to flee Virginia when he withdrew.6
When Thomas Jefferson wrote he Declaration of Independence, the longest complaint against King George III in his initial draft was 680 words claiming the king was encouraging enslaved people in America to murder their white owners. That language was removed before the Continental Congress adopted the declaration, leaving only a complaint that George III had "excited domestic insurrection amongst us."
Though the British welcomed enslaved men into their lines, the blacks were not treated equivalent to the while soldiers. Many ex-slaves still hoping for freedom via the British were severely disappointed when General Leslie withdrew from Portsmouth in 1780. He left behind several hundred, because the British ships lacked room.7
Despite the risks, attaching themselves to the British army remained the best opportunity for enslaved Virginians to gain freedom. After General Benedict Arnold arrived in Hampton Roads again at the end of 1780, more enslaved people attached themselves to the British Army again. In March 1781, the British hospital in Norfolk was threatened by Virginia militia. The Hessian captain in charge of the Jaeger Corps recruited wounded soldiers to help defend the site, but he also armed a dozen black men:8
Lord Cornwallis's army attracted numerous enslaved people as it marched through the Carolinas from Charlestown to Petersburg. The same Hessian captain who had armed a dozen black men to protect the British hospital was stunned when he first saw Cornwallis's army:9
At least one enslaved man earned his freedom by serving as a spy for the Revolutionary cause. James was granted permission by the New Kent County planter who "owned" him to leave the plantation. He worked in Yorktown at Cornwallis' headquarters in 1781, and both sides allowed him to pass through the lines as a laborer. James shared information with British officers about the French and American activities, but he was operating as a double agent. He reported more valuable intelligence, gathered from listening to dinner discussions by those officers, to the Marquis de Lafayette.
Lafayette provided support to James in 1784, when he petitioned the Virginia legislature for his freedom. The General Assembly rejected that petition, but approved another request when submitted in 1786. James chose to call himself James Lafayette and stayed in Virginia. He ended up owning land in New Kent County, and in 1818 the General Assembly awarded him an annual pension in recognition of his wartime service.10
The British offerred enslaved men a chance to gain their freedom by fighting against the American rebels, but the British commitment to freedom was limited. When the British attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina failed in 1779, hundreds of black soldiers were abandoned because there was not sufficient room in the boats for the return to Savannah. Historian Woody Holton reports:11
In October, 1781, at the end of the American Revolution, Cornwallis forced the blacks still with his army to move outside of his protected perimeter. They had to hide from the bombardment of Yorktown in the small no-man's land between the British and American/French lines, or accept re-enslavement by surrendering to the Americans.12
In the War of 1812, the British once again recruited enslaved Virginians to flee to their ships and organized them to fight the Americans. Tangier Island was the base for training the Corps of Colonial Marines in that war.14
Source: Library of Congress, An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
James served as a double agent in 1781, feeding information to British officers but actually serving as a spy for the Marquis de Lafayette
Source: Library of Virginia, the Uncommonwealth blog Two Revolutionary War Petitions (March 9, 2022)
enslaved men could earn their freedom by joining Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, while only free blacks were welcomed into the Continental Army
Source: Library of Congress, Life of George Washington--The farmer