Slavery in Virginia

Freedman's Village developed on the grounds of Arlington Plantation in the 1860's
Freedman's Village developed on the grounds of Arlington Plantation in the 1860's
Source: Harper's Weekly (May 7, 1864)

NOTE: Do not unconciously assume that the values of today have been accepted as the "normal" values in all societies in all times; do not assume that people in the past who did not behave according to modern values are automatically clueless/stupid/sinful in some way. Make your judgments after considering the circumstances.

In future centuries, everyone may know that burning petroleum as a fuel was a terrible waste of an extrordinarily-valuable chemical compound, and condemn those who used gasoline to drive to work. In future centuries, everyone may know that the Earth's capacity for human population was only 4 billion people, and condemn those who had more than one child after 1975. But right now, most humans behave as if some use of gasoline for energy, and having children, are socially acceptable.

Filtering one's understanding of the past by the standards of today is known as "presentism." Before reading about slavery in Virginia, recognize that personal judgements today on the behavior of the past cloud our understanding. 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. If you do not examine unspoken assumptions that slavery is evil, so everyone must have always known that emancipation was the only solution, then you may mis-understand how societies and places change over time.

Douglas Deal addressed the question of the good/moral slaveowner in a posting on the VA-HIST listserver in June, 2007:1

...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.

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. Before the Civil War, Virginia had slaves for nearly 250 years. The 250th anniversary of the end of slavery in Virginia is still a century away. Creating a culture of slavery took time, but by 1700 Virginia had established a clear distinction between white vs. black residents, how their labor would be valued, and how their lives would be controlled:

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.

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 Origins of Slavery in Virginia

The Virginia Debate: Why Slavery Was Not Abolished in Virginia

Nat Turner

Links

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)

References

1. Douglas Deal, "Re: Madison's slaves (and black descendants?)" posting on VA-HIST listserver, June 11, 2007, http://listlva.lib.va.us/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind0706&L=VA-HIST&F=&S=&P=46002 (last checked May 7, 2014)
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