Slavery in Virginia


NOTE: One of the classic challenges for today's history teachers is the tendency of students to assume that the values of current society were also accepted as the "normal" values in all societies in all times, and people in the past should have behaved acording to modern values. Discussions in the 21st Century on slavery in the 19th Century can trigger emotional eruptions regarding the moral character of Southern slaveowners and Northern capitalists, with unspoken assumptions that everyone knows slavery is a moral evil...

Filtering one's understanding of the past by the standards of today is known as "presentism." In future centuries, everyone may know that use of oil as a fuel is evil, and condemn those who used gasoline to drive to work. So before reading about slavery in Virginia, recognize that personal judgements today on the behavior of the past could cloud our understanding.

Douglas Deal addressed the question of the "good" or "moral" slaveowner in a posting on the VA-HIST listserver in June, 2007: ...we always define or judge our own values and beliefs with reference to "benchmarks" in the past. There is, after all, nothing else to use as a standard than that which has already happened. So, using the past to arrive at judgments about ourselves is perfectly appropriate. But reversing the procedure--judging the past by the standards of the present--is not. It is rather like trying to speak to the past from the present: we won't be heard and nothing will change.1


Slavery, as an institution, changed in Virginia between 1619 and the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, after the Civil War. The "peculiar institution" evolved and metamorphosed under both internal and external pressures, economic and social. "By the end of the seventeenth century, Virginia was changing from a society that used bound labor to a slave society based on black labor and perceived inferiority."2

The Origins of Slavery in Virginia

Before 1660, most slaves lived on plantations with 1-3 others, and most slaves were male. Interactions with whites were common and restrictions based exclusively on race were not rigid. By the 1680's, however, the status of "slave" was clearer and interactions with whites were restricted. By 1710 the average slaveholder owned 8 slaves, and there was a higher percentage of women in Virginia's slave population, so there was a greater possibility of some form of family life despite the greater restrictions.3

in 1860, the lowest percentage of Virginia's population held in slavery was west of the Blue Ridge
in 1860, the lowest percentage of Virginia's population held in slavery was west of the Blue Ridge
Source: University of Virginia, Historical Census Browser

in 1860, the Eastern Shore and Tidewater Virginia had the highest ration of free blacks to the total population
in 1860, the Eastern Shore and Tidewater Virginia had the highest ration of free blacks to the total population
Source: University of Virginia, Historical Census Browser

The Virginia Debate: Why Slavery Was Not Abolished in Virginia

Gabriel Prosser

Nat Turner

slaves were imported directly from Gambia and sold at Alexandria in 1762
slaves were imported directly from Gambia and sold at Alexandria in 1762
Source: Maryland State Archives, Maryland Gazette (September 16, 1762)

slaves were imported directly from the west coast of Africa and sold at Fredericksurg in 1762
slaves were imported directly from the west coast of Africa and sold at Fredericksurg in 1762
Source: Maryland State Archives, Maryland Gazette (September 9, 1762)

Links

References

1. Douglas Deal, "Re: Madison's slaves (and black descendants?)" posting on VA-HIST listserver, June 11, 2007, listlva.lib.va.us/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind0706&L=VA-HIST&D=0&T=0&X=25658E52A6D10017AC&Y=cgrymes%40gmu.edu&P=7791 (last checked June 27, 2007)
2. Croghan, Laura A., "'The Negroes to Serve Forever': The Evolution of Blacks's Life and Labor in Seventeenth-Century Virginia," Masters Thesis, William and Mary, 1994, p.24
3. Croghan, p. 24

slave quarters in Williamsburg, near Governor's Palace
slave quarters in Williamsburg, near Governor's Palace


Population of Virginia
Virginia Places