The following is a letter from the colonial governor of Virginia, William Gooch, explaining why the colony passed a law denying the vote to free Black colonists. Gooch explains that due to a recent slave conspiracy that also involved freedmen, that the Assembly decided to “fix a perpetual brand upon free negros and mulattos by excluding them from that great priviledge of a Freeman.” Gooch’s reasoning includes that freedmen will always work with enslaved people, as well as the arrogance of freedmen (particularly biracial ones.)
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Lt. Governor Gooch to Mr. Popple
I lately had the favour of yours of the 18th of December last, signifying the pleasure of my Lords Commissioners for Trade, that I should inform them of the reasons which induced the Assembly to pass the Law in 1723 Chap. 4th. depriving free negros and mulattos of the priviledge of voting at any election of Burgesses to serve in the General Assembly, or at any other Elections. In answer thereto it is to be noted, as I am well informed, that just before the meeting of that Assembly, there had been a conspiracy discovered amongst the negros to cutt off the English, wherein the free negros and mulattos were much suspected to have been concerned (which will for ever be the case) and tho’ there could be no legal proof so as to convict them, yet such was the insolence of the free negros at that time, that the next Assembly thought it necessary, not only to make the meetings of slaves very penal, but to fix a perpetual brand upon free negros and mulattos by excluding them from that great priviledge of a Freeman, well knowing they always did, and ever will adhere to and favour the slaves. And ’tis likewise said to have been done with design, which I must think a good one, to make the free negros sensible that a distinction ought to be made between their offspring and the descendants of an Englishman, with whom they never were to be accounted equal. This, I confess may seem to carry an air of severity to such as are unacquainted with the nature of negros, and the pride of a manumitted slave, who looks on himself immediately on his acquiring his freedom to be as good a man as the best of his neighbours, but especially if he is descended of a white father or mother, lett them be of what mean condition soever; and as most of them are the basterds of some of the worst of our imported servants, and convicts, it seems no ways impolitick, as well for discouraging that kind of copulation as to preserve a decent distinction between them and their betters, to leave this mark on them until time and education has changed the indication of their spurious extraction, and made some alteration in their morals. After all the number of free negros and mulattos entitled to the priviledge of voting at elections is so inconsiderable, that tis scarce worth while to take any notice of them in this particular, since by other Acts of Assembly now subsisting they are disabled from being either jurymen or witnesses in any case whatsoever, and so are as much excluded from being good and lawful men, as villains were of old by the Laws of England. It will, no doubt, some yeers hence, be fitt for an House of Burgesses to consider to what degree of descent this incapacity shall extend, but at present there is a necessity of continuing of it on the foot it is. This you will be pleased to communicate to their Lordships with the true account of the motives for the passing the Law in 1723 and the present disposition of the Country to continue it. Signed, William Gooch. Endorsed, Recd. 10th Aug., Read 7th Oct., 1736. 2¼ pp.
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- Holly Brewer, “Creating a Common Law of Slavery for England and its New World Empire.” Law and History Review, 2021 39(4), 765-834. doi:10.1017/S0738248021000407
- Edward Fiddes, “Lord Mansfield and the Somersett Case” Law Quarterly Review 50 (1934): 499–511.
- F.O. Shylon, Black Slaves in Britain (London 1974).
- William M. Wiecek, “Somerest: Lord Mansfield and the Legitimacy of Slavery in the Anglo-American World,” University of Chicago Law Review 42 (1974): 86–146.
- David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Cornell UP: Ithaca, NY: 1975), esp.ch. 10.
- James Oldham, “New Light on Mansfield and Slavery” Journal of British Studies 27 (1988): 45–68.
- A. Leon Higginbotham, In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process I: The Colonial Period (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 323–27.
- George Van Cleve, “Somerset’s Case and Its Antecedents in Imperial Perspective,” Law and History Review 24 (2006): 601–46.
- Butts v. Penny, 83 Eng. Rep. 518, 519; Butts v. Penny, 84 Eng. Rep. 1011
- Transcription credit: Holly Brewer, Lauren Michalak, Hannah Nolan.