A Lawyer’s Call

St. George Tucker’s Gradual Emancipation Plan (1796)

One of Virginia’s most notable lawyers in the late 18th Century, Tucker set out to provide his state with a plan to rid itself of the institution of slavery.


St. George Tucker was a leading statesman, lawyer, and judge in the state of Virginia. Originally born in Burmuda, he immigrated to Virginia in the midst of the American Revolution to study law under the famed George Wythe at the College of William and Mary.

Tucker is best known for his edition of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1803), an essential reader for any lawyer and judge at the beginning of the 19th Century. It is especially interesting since he added substantial comments to Blackstone’s original text, especially in a fifth volume of appendixes in which he tried to adapt Blackstone’s monarchical common law to that of a republic. His gradual emancipation plan for Virginia in 1796, however, was met with much less enthusiasm.

In researching his plan, Tucker wrote to historians and politicians in many different colonies to learn the history and current state of slavery and emancipation in their states. When he eventually submitted his plan to the General Assembly of Virginia, it was only briefly debated before being tabled (effectively killing it). A clear indication of the votes on the plan are not available, though Tucker’s own writings on the matter seem to hint there was more than one vote on whether to accept, or table, his plan. A variety of factors, including the ongoing Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791, made Virginia legislatures wary of wholesale gradual emancipation plans, even one as gradual as Tucker’s (his plan kept even the children of the children enslaved for a time).

Tucker published his dissertation on slavery multiple times, including as a part of his edition of Commentaries.

Derek Litvak

Further Reading

Samantha Seeley – Race, Removal, and the Right to Remain: Migration and the Making of the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021)

Brandon Mills – The World Colonization Made: The Racial Geography of Early American Empire (Philadelphia: University Pennsylvania Press, 2020)


1. Project Gutenberg ebook copy.  Released May 3, 2010.  Accessed 11/3/17.

By the accounts of historians Phillip Hamilton (The Making and Unmaking of a Revolutionary Family: The Tuckers of Virginia, 1753-1830 (2003), 82) and Paul Finkelman (“The Dragon St. George Could Not Slay: Tucker’s Plan to End Slavery” WM Law Review. 34: 1111-1121) the proposal was given to the Assembly, but no action was taken on it by VA legislators and it appears that efforts were made to keep it from even coming to a vote.

2. Lib. 1. Tit. 2 (citation from source)

3. Letter from Jas. Sullivan, Esq. to Dr. Belknap. (citation from source)

4. St. George Tucker to Robert Pleasants, June 29, 1797, Tucker-Coleman Papers, Mss. 40 T79, Box 63, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

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"St. George Tucker’s Gradual Emancipation Plan (1796)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire - Accessed July 13, 2024. https://slaverylawpower.org/tucker-emancipation-plan-1796/
"St. George Tucker’s Gradual Emancipation Plan (1796)." Slavery Law & Power in Early America and the British Empire [Online]. Available: https://slaverylawpower.org/tucker-emancipation-plan-1796/. [Accessed: July 13, 2024]

Content Warning

Please be aware that many of the works in this project contain racist and offensive language and descriptions of punishment and enslavement that may be difficult to read. However, this language and these descriptions reveal the horrors of slavery. Please take care when transcribing these materials, and see our Ethics Statement and About page.

St. George Tucker’s Gradual Emancipation Plan (1796)1Project Gutenberg ebook copy. Released May 3, 2010. Accessed 11/3/17.

St. George Tucker, Professor of Law in the University of William and Mary, and One of the Judges of the General Court, in Virginia.



General Assembly of Virginia,

To whom it belongs to decide upon the expediency and practicability of a plan for the gradual abolition of Slavery in this commonwealth,

The following pages are most respectfully submitted and inscribed,


Williamsburg, in Virginia

May 20, 1796


            The following pages form a part of a course of Lectures on Law and Police, delivered in the University of William and Mary, in this commonwealth.  The Author considering the Abolition of Slavery in this State, as an object of the first importance, not only to our moral character and domestic peace, but even to our political salvation; and being persuaded that the accomplishment of so momentous and desirable an undertaking will in great measure depend upon the early adoption of some plan for that purpose, with diffidence submits to the consideration of his countrymen his ideas on the subject of such consequence.  He flatters himself that the plan he ventures to suggest, is liable to fewer objections that most others that have been submitted to the consideration of the public, as it will be attended with a gradual change of condition in the blacks, and cannot possibly affect the interest either of creditors, or any other description of persons of the present generation: and posterity he makes no doubt will feel themselves relieved from a perilous and grievous burden by the timely adoption of a plan, whose operation may be felt by them, before they are borne down by a weight which threatens destruction to our happiness both public and private.



In the preceding Enquiry into the absolute rights of the citizens of united America, we must not be understood as if those rights were equally and universally the privilege of all inhabitants of the United States, or even of all those, who may challenge this land of freedom as their native country.  Among the blessings which the Almighty hath showered down on these states, there is a large portion of the bitterest draught that ever flowed from the cup of affliction.  Whilst America hath been the land of promise to Europeans, and their descendants, it hath been the vale of death to millions of the wretched sons of Africa.  The genial light of liberty, which hath here shone with unrivalled lustre on the former, hath yielded no comfort to the latter, but to them hath proved a pillar of darkness, whilst it hath conducted the former to the most enviable state of human existence.  Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Host to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite with us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained…To form a just estimate of this obligation, to demonstrate the incompatibility of a state of slavery with the principles of our government, and of that revolution upon which it is founded, and to elucidate the practicability of its total, though gradual, abolition, it will be proper to consider the nature of slavery, its properties, attendants, and consequences in general; its rise, progress, and present state not only in this commonwealth, but in such of our sister states as have either perfected, or commenced the great work of its extirpation; with the means they  have adopted to effect it, and those which the circumstances and situation of our country may render it most expedient for us to pursue, for the attainment of the same noble and important end.

According to Justinian;2Lib. 1. Tit. 2 (citation from source) the first general division of persons, in respect to their rights, is into freemen and slaves.  It is equally the glory and the happiness of that country from which the citizens of the United States derive their origin, that the traces of slavery, such as at present exists in several of the United States, are there utterly extinguished.  It is not my design to enter into a minute enquiry whether it ever had existence there, nor to compare the situation of villeins, during the existence of bure villenage, with that of modern domestic slaves.  The records of those times, at least, such as have reached this quarter of the globe, are too few to throw a satisfactory light on the subject.  Suffice it that our ancestors migrating hither brought not with them any prototype of that slavery which hath been established among us.  The first introduction of it into Virginia was by the arrival of a Dutch ship from the coast of Africa having twenty Negroes on board, who were sold here in the year 1620…The great increase of slavery in the southern, in proportion to the northern states in the union, is therefore not attributable, solely, to the effect of sentiment, but to natural causes; as well as those considerations of profit, which have, perhaps, an equal influence over the conduct of mankind in general, in whatever country, or under whatever climate their destiny hath placed them.  What else but considerations of this nature could have influenced the merchants of the freest nation, at that time in the world, to embark in so nefarious a traffic, as that of the human race, attended, as the African slave trade has been, with the most atrocious aggravations of cruelty, perfidy, and intrigues, the objects of which have been the perpetual fomentation of predatory and intestine wars?  What, but similar considerations, could prevail on the government of the same country, even in these days, to patronize a commerce so diametrically opposite to the generally received maxims of that government.  It is to the operation of these considerations in the parent country, not less than to their influence in the colonies, that the rise, increase, and continuance of slavery in those British colonies which now constitute united America, are to be attributed, as I shall endeavor to shew in the course of the present enquiry…


…In 1723 a duty of five per cent. was laid on slaves imported, to be paid by the buyers; a measure calculated to render it as little obnoxious as possible to the English merchants trading to Africa, and not improbably suggested by them, to the privy council in England.  The preamble to this act is in these remarkable words, “We your majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, &c. taking into our serious consideration the exigencies of your government here, and that the duty laid upon liquors will not be sufficient to defray the necessary expences thereof, do humbly represent to your majesty, that no other duty can be laid upon our import or export, without oppressing your subjects, than a duty upon slaved imported, to be paid by the buyers, agreeable to your majesty’s instructions to your lieutenant governor.”…

In the course of this enquiry it is easy to trace the desire of the legislature to put a stop to the further importation of slaves; and had not this desire been uniformly opposed on the part of the crown, it is highly probably that event would have taken effect at a much earlier period than it did.  A duty of five per cent. to be paid by the buyers, at first, with difficulty obtained the royal assent.  Requisitions from the crown for aids, on particular occasions, afforded a pretext from time to time for increasing the duty from five, to ten, and finally to twenty per cent. with which the buyer was uniformly made chargeable.  The wishes of the people of this colony, were not sufficient to counterbalance the interest of the English merchants, trading to Africa, and it is probably, that however disposed to put a stop to so infamous a traffic by law, we should never have been able to effect it, so long as we might have continued dependant on the British government: an object sufficient of itself to justify a revolution…

The extirpation of slavery from the United States, is a task equally arduous and momentous.  To restore the blessings of liberty to near a million of oppressed individuals, who have groaned under the yoke of bondage, and to their descendants, is an object, which those who trust in Providence, will be convinced would not be unaided by the divine Author of our being, should we invoke his blessings upon our endeavours.  Yet human prudence forbids that we should precipitately engage in a work of such hazard as a general and simultaneous emancipation.  The mind of man must in some measure be formed for his future condition.  The early impressions of obedience and submission, which slaves have received among us, and the no less habitual arrogance and assumption of superiority, among the whites, contribute, equally, to unfit the former for freedom, and the latter for equality.  To expel them all at once, from the United States, would in fact be to devote them only to a lingering death by famine, by disease, and other accumulated miseries: “We have in history but one picture of a similar enterprize, and there we see it was necessary not only to open the sea by a miracle, for them to pass, but more necessary to close it again to prevent their return.”3Letter from Jas. Sullivan, Esq. to Dr. Belknap. (citation from source)To retain them among us, would be nothing more than to throw so many of the human race upon the earth without the means of subsistence: they would soon become idle, profligate, and miserable.  Unfit for their new condition, and unwilling to return to their former laborious course, they would become the caterpillars of the earth, and the tigers of the human race.  The recent history of the French West Indies exhibits a melancholy picture of the probably consequences of a general, and momentary emancipation in any of the states, where slavery has made considerable progress…These are serious, I had almost said unsurmountable obstacles, to general, simultaneous emancipation.—There are other considerations not to be disregarded.  A great part of the property of individuals consists in slaves. The laws have sanctioned this species of property.  Can the laws take away the property of an individual without his own consent, or without a just compensation? Will those who do not hold slaves agree to be taxed to make this compensation?  Creditors also, who have trusted their debtors upon the faith of this visible property will be defrauded.  If justice demands the emancipation of the slave, she also, under these circumstances, seems to plead for the owner, and for his creditor…Strenuously as I feel my mind opposed to a simultaneous emancipation, for the reasons already mentioned, the abolition of slavery in the united States, and especially in that state, to which I am attached by every tie that nature and society form, is now my first, and will probably be my last, expiring wish.  But here let me avoid the imputation of inconsistency, by observing, that the abolition of slavery may be effected without the emancipation of a single slave; without depriving any many of the property which he possesses, and without defrauding a creditor who has trusted him on the faith of the property.  The experiment in that mode has begun in some of our sister states.  Pennsylvania, under the auspices of the immortal Franklin, begun the work of gradual abolition of slavery in the year 1780, by enlisting nature herself, on the side of humanity.  Connecticut followed the example four years after.  New-York very lately made an essay which miscarried by a very inconsiderable majority.  Mr. Jefferson informs us, that the committee of revisors, of which he was a member, had prepared a bill for the emancipation of all slaves born after passing that act.  This is conformable to the Pennsylvania and Connecticut laws….”But why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state?” This question has been well answered by Mr.Jefferson, and who is there so free from prejudices among us, as candidly to declare that he has none against such a measure? The recent scenes transacted in the French colonies in the West Indies are enough to make one shudder with the apprehension of realizing similar calamities in this country. Such probably would be the event of an attempt to smother those prejudices which have been cherished for a period of almost two centuries. Those who secretly favour, whilst they affect to regret, domestic slavery, contend that in abolishing it, we must also abolish that scion from it which I have denominated civil slavery. That there must be no distinction of rights; that the descendants of Africans, as men, have an equal claim to all civil rights, as the descendants of Europeans; and upon being delivered from the yoke of bondage have a right to be admitted to all the privileges of a citizen.—But have not men when they enter into a state of society, a right to admit, or exclude any description of persons, as they think proper? If it be true, as Mr. Jefferson seems to suppose, that the Africans are really an inferior race of mankind, will not sound policy advise their exclusion from a society in which they have not yet been admitted to participate in civil rights; and even to guard against such admission, at any future period, since it may eventually depreciate the whole national character? And if prejudices have taken such deep root in our minds, as to render it impossible to eradicate this opinion, ought not so general an error, if it be one, to be respected? Shall we not relieve the necessities of the naked diseased beggar, unless we will invite him to a seat at our table; nor afford him shelter from the inclemencies of the night air, unless we admit him also to share our bed? To deny that we ought to abolish slavery, without incorporating the Negroes into the state, and admitting them to a full participation of all our civil and social rights, appears to me to rest upon a similar foundation. The experiment so far as it has been already made among us, proves that the emancipated blacks are not ambitious of civil rights. To prevent the generation of such an ambition, appears to comport with sound policy; for if it should ever rear its head, its partizans, as well as its opponents, will be enlisted by nature herself, and always ranged in formidable array against each other. We must therefore endeavour to find some middle course, between the tyrannical and iniquitous policy which holds so many human creatures in a state of grievous bondage, and that which would turn loose a numerous, starving, and enraged banditti, upon the innocent descendants of their former oppressors. Nature, time, and sound policy must co-operate with each other to produce such a change: if either be neglected, the work will be incomplete, dangerous, and not improbably destructive.


The plan therefore which I would presume to propose for the consideration of my countrymen is such, as the number of slaves, the difference of their nature, and habits, and the state of agriculture, among us, might render it expedient, rather than desirable to adopt: and would partake partly of that proposed by Mr. Jefferson, and adopted in other states; and partly of such cautionary restrictions, as a due regard to situation and circumstances, and even to general prejudices, might recommend to those, who engage in so arduous, and perhaps unprecedented an undertaking.

1. Let every female born after the adoption of the plan be free, and transmit freedom to all her descendants, both male and female.

2. As a compensation to those persons, in whose families such females, or their descendants may be born, for the expence and trouble of their maintenance during infancy, let them serve such persons until the age of twenty-eight years: let them then receive twenty dollars in money, two suits of clothes, suited to the season, a hat, a pair of shoes, and two blankets. If these things be not voluntarily done, let the county courts enforce the performance, upon complaint.

3. Let all Negroe children be registered with the clerk of the county or corporation court, where born, within one month after their birth: let the person in whose family they are born take a copy of the register, and deliver it to the mother, or if she die to the child, before it is of the age of twenty-one years. Let any Negroe claiming to be free, and above the age of puberty, be considered as of the age of twenty-eight years, if he or she be not registered, as required.

4. Let all such Negroe servants be put on the same footing as white servants and apprentices now are, in respect to food, raiment, correction, and the assignment of their service from one to another.

5. Let the children of Negroes and mulattoes, born in the families of their parents, be bound to service by the overseers of the poor, until they shall attain the age of twenty-one years.—Let all above that age, who are not housekeepers, nor have voluntarily bound themselves to service for a year before the first day of February annually, be then bound for the remainder of the year by the overseers of the poor. Let the overseers of the poor receive fifteen per cent. of their wages, from the person hiring them, as a compensation for their trouble, and ten per cent. per annum out of the wages of such as they may bind apprentices.

6. If at the age of twenty-seven years, the master of a Negroe or mulattoe servant be unwilling to pay his freedom dues, above mentioned, at the expiration of the succeeding year, let him bring him into the county court, clad and furnished with necessaries as before directed, and pay into court five dollars, for the use of the servant, and thereupon let the court direct him to be hired by the overseers of the poor for the succeeding year, in the manner before directed.

7. Let no Negroe or mulattoe be capable of taking, holding, or exercising, any public office, freehold, franchise or privilege, or any estate in lands or tenements, other than a lease not exceeding twenty-one years.—Nor of keeping, or bearing arms, unless authorised so to do by some act of the general assembly, whose duration shall be limitted to three years. Nor of contracting matrimony with any other than a Negroe or mulattoe; nor be an attorney; nor be a juror; nor a witness in any court of judicature, except against; or between Negroes and mulattoes. Nor be an executor or administrator; nor capable of making any will or testament; nor maintain any real action; nor be a trustee of lands or tenements himself, nor any other person to be a trustee to him or to his use.

8. Let all persons born after the passing of the act, be considered as entitled to the same mode of trial in criminal cases, as free Negroes and mulattoes are now entitled to.

The restrictions in this place may appear to favour strongly of prejudice: whoever proposes any plan for the abolition of slavery, will find that he must either encounter, or accommodate himself to prejudice.—I have preferred the latter; not that I pretend to be wholly exempt from it, but that I might avoid as many obstacles as possible to the completion of so desirable a work, as the abolition of slavery. Though I am opposed to the banishment of the Negroes, I wish not to encourage their future residence among us. By denying them the most valuable privileges which civil government affords, I wished to render it their inclination and their interest to seek those privileges in some other climate. There is an immense unsettled territory on this continent more congenial to their natural constitutions than ours, where they may perhaps be received upon more favourable terms than we can permit them to remain with us. Emigrating in small numbers, they will be able to effect settlements more easily than in large numbers; and without the expence or danger of numerous colonies. By releasing them from the yoke of bondage, and enabling them to seek happiness wherever they can hope to find it, we surely confer a benefit, which no one can sufficiently appreciate, who has not tasted of the bitter curse of compulsory servitude. By excluding them from offices, the seeds of ambition would be buried too deep, ever to germinate: by disarming them, we may calm our apprehensions of their resentments arising from past sufferings; by incapacitating them from holding lands, we should add one inducement more to emigration, and effectually remove the foundation of ambition, and partystruggles. Their personal rights, and their property, though limited, would whilst they remain among us be under the protection of the laws; and their condition not at all inferior to that of the labouring poor in most other countries. Under such an arrangement we might reasonably hope, that time would either remove from us a race of men, whom we wish not to incorporate with us, or obliterate those prejudices, which now form an obstacle to such incorporation.

But it is not from the want of liberality to the emancipated race of blacks that I apprehend the most serious objections to the plan I have ventured to suggest.— Those slave holders (whose numbers I trust are few) who have been in the habit of considering their fellow creatures as no more than cattle, and the rest of the brute creation, will exclaim that they are to be deprived of their property, without compensation. Men who will shut their ears against this moral truth, that all men are by nature free, and equal, will not even be convinced that they do not possess a property in an unborn child: they will not distinguish between allowing to unborn generations the absolute and unalienable rights of human nature, and taking away that which they now possess; they will shut their ears against truth, should you tell them, the loss of the mother’s labour for nine months, and the maintenance of a child for a dozen or fourteen years, is amply compensated by the services of that child for as many years more, as he has been an expence to them. But if the voice of reason, justice and humanity be not stifled by sordid avarice, or unfeeling tyranny, it would be easy to convince even those who have entertained such erroneous notions, that the right of one man over another is neither founded in nature, nor in sound policy. That it cannot extend to those not in being; that no man can in reality be deprived of what he doth not possess: that fourteen years labour by a young person in the prime of life, is an ample compensation for a few months of labour lost by the mother, and for the maintenance of a child, in that coarse homely manner that Negroes are brought up: And lastly, that a state of slavery is not only perfectly incompatible with the principles of government, but with the safety and security of their masters. History evinces this. At this moment we have the most awful demonstrations of it. Shall we then neglect a duty, which every consideration, moral, religious, political, or selfish, recommends. Those who wish to postpone the measure, do not reflect that every day renders the task more arduous to be performed. We have now 300,000 slaves among us. Thirty years hence we shall have double the number. In sixty years we shall have 1,200,000. And in less than another century from this day, even that enormous number will be doubled. Milo acquired strength enough to carry an ox, by beginning with the ox while he was yet a calf. If we complain that the calf is too heavy for our shoulders, what will not the ox be?

I am not vain enough to presume the plan I have suggested entirely free from objection; nor that in offering my own ideas on the subject, I have been more fortunate than others: but from the communication of sentiment between those who lament the evil, it is possible that an effectual remedy may at length be discovered. Whenever that happens the golden age of our country will begin.

Till then,

——Non hospes ab hospite tutus,

Non Herus à Famulie: fratrum qu oque gratia rara.


EARLY ACCESS:  Transcription is under editorial review and may contain errors.
Please do not cite or otherwise reproduce without permission.

  • 1
    Project Gutenberg ebook copy. Released May 3, 2010. Accessed 11/3/17.
  • 2
    Lib. 1. Tit. 2 (citation from source)
  • 3
    Letter from Jas. Sullivan, Esq. to Dr. Belknap. (citation from source)