[Please see the previous post, “Correcting (my own) Normativity of Whiteness: 1. From the Arrival of the First African Slaves to ‘Partus Sequitur Ventrem’,” for needed context.]
In what follows, we continue to consider the construction of the “white race” and “whiteness” as developed in Colonial American history. As noted before, there simply was no such thing as “white people” prior to the 17th century. We have already witnessed how, through legal changes, a disparate group of indentured servants from various European and African nations, working side by side at the beginning of the 17th century, were transformed into roughly two groups, (1) “Christians” and those from “Christian nations,” receiving legal protections, and (2) those imported from non-“Christian” nations, comprising (with few exceptions) those of African descent alone—and their children. The latter increasingly became subjects of life-long servitude, while the former were granted more and more legal protections and comparative privileges. But as we have also seen, once conversion to Christianity was legally clarified to not require manumission, new lines of demarcation and categorization were needed to maintain the social control system necessary for a slave-based economy, wherein a few wealthy land-holders employed with scraps and chains an overwhelmingly large labor class.
And possibly more than any other event, Bacon’s Rebellion made clear to Virginia’s leadership the necessity of new lines of demarcation among these laboring people groups. To this we will now turn.
1676/7 – Bacon’s Rebellion
In many ways, Bacon’s Rebellion was a watershed moment in Colonial Virginia—maybe for Colonial America in general. In brief, Nathaniel Bacon, a newcomer to Virginia and member of the governor’s council, organized a rebellion against Sir William Berkeley and all in leadership who opposed his plans to appropriate Native American territory by force. Bacon died before the end of this civil war, and his army, gathered from the poor and disenfranchised of Virginia, ultimately surrendered to Berkeley’s forces, even before the arrival of English troops from the homeland. While there is much to learn from these events, the most important for our purposes are the nature of the army of rebels Bacon united and the complex relationship created between Virginia’s House of Burgesses and the local Native Americans.
As to the first, Bacon was able to appeal to all disenfranchised residents, including indentured servants and slaves. Europeans—whether Irish, English, Dutch, Scottish, or otherwise—united arm in arm with African slaves and servants and turned against the governor, the Assembly, the wealthy, and the propertied in Virginia. This rebellion, though for truly awful purposes, gave the poor and enslaved opportunity to upset the social order and opportunity for freedom from their physical and metaphorical bonds. Historians are increasingly united in the conclusion that the following laws and Slave Codes in Virginia were in direct response to the existential reality that poor and indentured European “Christians” (i.e., whites) and imported African slaves and servants were, when united, a real threat to the minority of wealthy and landed leaders of the colony.
The solution to this threat to the imposed social order and economic system was to enfranchise European “Christians” and definitively marginalize Africans, who were increasingly in abundant supply, were completely estranged to European life and customs, did not even share a common language with each other, and were already “seasoned” by the debasement and abuses of the Atlantic slave trade. If the Burgesses and governors could offer what W.E.B Du Bois called a “psychological wage” to even the most misused whites, they could preclude further united efforts against their power, without even having to offer poor whites true relief from their economic subservience.
Secondly, Bacon’s indiscriminate attacks and murderous raids on Native tribes, both friend and foe, created quite complex relations with the tribes going forward. Even more complex was the fact that Bacon and his rebels were in fact acting upon the wishes of the Colony’s poor and un-landed residents who saw economic gain as only possible through increased territory. By and large, the leaders of the community wished to maintain trading relations with the local tribes, having already secured their own incomes and estates, while poorer and less powerful residents sought to increase the boundaries further into the frontier. This conflict of interests helps to explain the back and forth of the status of Native Americans in the slave laws going forward.
1680 – “An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections”
Following Bacon’s Rebellion, the General Assembly began to pass firm laws prohibiting “Negroes” and those deemed members of the slave class from any violence toward “Christians,” that is, English, Irish, Dutch, Scottish, Slavic, etc., as we’d shown in the last post. These laws went in one direction—no black violence against whites. We read the following in the 1680 act:
And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid that if any negroe or other slave shall presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any christian, shall for every such offence, upon due proofe made thereof by the oath of the party before a magistrate, have and receive thirty lashes on his bare back well laid on.
Further, these laws both reflected and had bearing on how the participants in Bacon’s Rebellion were treated, based on “race.” Ibram X Kendi reports that “[i]n 1680, legislators pardoned only the White rebels; they prescribed thirty lashes for any slave who lifted a hand ‘against any Christian’ (Christian now meant White). All Whites now wielded absolute power to abuse any African person” (Stamped From the Beginning, p. 54).
1682 – “ An act to repeale a former law making Indians and others ffree.”
As we read in our last post, prior to Bacon’s Rebellion, “Indian” slavery was outlawed and servitude was limited to a term of years to be followed by manumission. The Assembly had defined the conditions for permanent bondage to a category that, except in rare exceptions, only applied to African imports.
Five years after the rebellion and the many wars with neighboring “Indians” it sparked, laws were changed to again allow enslaving Native Americans.
And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid that all servants except Turkes and Moores, whilest in amity with his majesty which from and after publication of this act shall be brought or imported into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes, Moors, Mollattoes or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not christian at the time of their first purchase of such servant by some christian, although afterwards, and before such their importation and bringing into this country, they shall be converted to the christian faith; and all Indians which shall hereafter be sold by our neighbouring Indians, or any other trafiqueing with us as for slaves are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents and purposes, any law, usage or custome to the countrary notwithstanding.
Please note the language of this act: “Negros, Moors, Mulattoes, or Indians.” Minus “Moors,” this would become the language used throughout the coming slave laws as life-long servitude was increasingly narrowed to include only those of African descent and those deemed to be of African descent by partus sequitur ventrem. Literally all who would later be called “white” were already excluded from this unprotected slave class, though Native Americans still hung in the balance.
1683 – Reversal of 1682 Act allowing “Indian” slavery
The following year, for reasons unknown to historians, the Assembly repealed the 1682 act declaring Native Americans subjects of chattel slavery. There would be back and forth on this issue for years to come, but the issue was finally put to rest in 1806, Hudgins v. Wright. In the Virginia Supreme Court, Jackey Wright sued for freedom for herself and her two children on grounds that she had no African blood, that the 1662 act (discussed last time) had disallowed life-long servitude for “Indians”, and that the 1705 slave codes (coming up) narrowed slavery to only those of African descent. Hudgins leveraged the partus law, proving that her mother was Native American and thereby received her free status. “Indian” slavery would not return following this decision.
1691 – “An act for suppressing outlying slaves”
Fourteen years following Bacon’s Rebellion, we see the first documented use in the English language of “white” as an appellation for people; “white men” and “white women” are explicitly set in contrast to “negroes, mulattos, and Indians,” the category noted above. Those immigrants formerly abstracted from disparate nationhood and called “Christians,” or those “from a Christian nation,” including English, Irish, Scottish, German, French, Slavic, etc., are by 1691 a class simply called “white.”
And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may encrease in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawfull accompanying with one another, Be it enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever, and that the justices of each respective countie within this dominion make it their perticular care, that this act be put in effectuall execution.
1697 – “Act to keep inviolate and preserve the freedom of Elections”
Further, the English Colony of Barbados followed suit just six years later, distinguishing those who were allowed to own land, vote, and hold office as “every white Man professing the Christian Religion”:
Be it Enacted by the Honourable the President and Council, and Representatives of this Island, and by authority of the same, that every white Man professing the Christian Religion, the free and natural born Subject of the King of England, or naturalized, who hath attained to the full Age of One and Twenty Year, and hath Ten Acres of Freehold…shall be deemed a Freeholder, and shall and may be capable of Electing Representatives or Vestry-Men, or of being Elected a Representative or Vestry-Man in the Parish wherein such his Estate lieth, or to serve as a Juror to try real Actions…
1705 – “An act concerning Servants and Slaves”
This next act, commonly called the “Slave Act of 1705,” is considered to be the legislative culmination of the events and decisions following Bacon’s Rebellion, the remedy against all like organized rebellions, and also a final detailed clarification and adjudication of the often contradictory, and certainly piecemeal, slave legislation that had gone before.
Section I again exempts “Christians” and those “of Christian parentage” from slavery, i.e., from life-long servitude:
Be it enacted, by the governor, council, and burgesses, of this present general assembly, and it is hereby enacted, by the authority of the same, That all servants brought into this country without indenture, if the said servants be christians, and of christian parentage, and above nineteen years of age, ’till they shall become twenty-four years of age, and no longer.
We also have a reiteration of earlier doctrines limiting slavery to non-“Christian” imports from non-“Christian” nations—or, as we have already demonstrated, none-whites—regardless of future conversion to the Christianity. It is important to note that this section also outlawed life-long servitude for “Indians,” as had the acts of 1662 and 1670. But it is nevertheless clear throughout the Codes that Native Americans were not thereby granted the same protections as “white” “Christians.” Native Americans, let no doubt arise, were and have been treated horribly throughout the history of this nation; but we need also recognize that chattel, life-long, slavery was by 1705 the province of “negroes,” “mulattos,” and their children alone.
And also be in enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That all servants imported and brought into this country, by sea or land, who were not christians in their native country, (except Turks and Moors in amity with her majesty, and others that can make due proof of their being free in England, or any other christian country, before they were shipped, in order to transportation hither) shall be accounted and be slaves, and such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to christianity afterward.
In Section VII, we also see specific protections given to “white” indentured servants, separating by carrot those who were previously willing to join in rebellion with “negroes, mulattos, and Indians”:
[N]neither shall, at any time, whip a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace: And if any, notwithstanding this act, shall presume to whip a christian white servant naked, without such order, the person so offending, shall forfeit and pay for the same, forty shillings sterling to the party injured.
Section XI is particularly important and revealing. First, the whole section is premised on an endeavor to “care” for white people, distinguishing them thereby from “negroes, mulattos, and Indians,” perfectly consistent with what historians have demonstrated was necessary to maintain the Colonial social control order, separating whites from blacks, winning the former’s allegiance. Second, we see that the power to enslave was only to be in one direction; whites alone had such power over blacks. And last, we see that “who” could enslave “who” was now to be adjudicated by “complexion”!
This truly was a remarkable milestone in the creation of the “white race” and the calcification of the “color-line” as it has existed in our nation ever since. We read,
And for a further christian care and usage of all christian servants, Be it also enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That no negros, mulattos, or Indians, although christian, or Jews, Moors, Mahometans, or other infidels, shall, at any time, purchase any christian servant, nor any other, except of their own complexion, or such as are declared slaves by this act: And if any negro, mulatto, or Indian, Jew, Moor, Mahometan, or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any christian white servant, the said servant shall, ipso facto, become free and acquit from any service then due, and shall be so held, deemed, and taken….
Finally, in Section XV we see the Colony’s effort to assure these created people groups would remain separate, with a permanent white protected class that, while misused, would continue to be enfranchised, at least as compared to “negroes, mulattos, and Indians.” Please note in the following (and the above) how “Christian” and “white” were by this point nearly synonymous, used interchangeably.
And for a further prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue, which hereafter may increase in this her majesty’s colony and dominion, as well by English, and other white men and women intermarrying with negroes or mulattos, as by their unlawful coition with them, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That whatsoever English, or other white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall, by judgment of the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain, during the space of six months, without bail or mainprize; and shall forfeit and pay ten pounds current money of Virginia, to the use of the parish, as aforesaid.
1709 – “Act to keep inviolate, and preserve the Freedom of Elections”
Four years later, as Katharine Gerbner has noted, Barbados added in interesting clarification to the 1697 act discussed above, clarifying the meaning of “white.” The added verbiage reads as follows:
And be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That no Person whatsoever shall be admitted as a Freeholder, or an Evidence in any Case whatsoever, whose original Extract shall be proved to have been from a Negro, except only on the Tryal of Negroes and other Slaves…
The 1709 Act is the first evidence of the “one drop rule” in Barbadian law. Instead of using “whiteness” as a physical descriptor or even a general ethnic category, it restricted citizenship to individuals with only European ancestry. It condemned free Christians, whether mixed race or mulatto, to underclass status, regardless of their religious affiliation or cultural practice. (p. 69)
That is, “white” was not primarily a skin color, but an inherited status granting privileges in contrast to “negroes, mulattos, and Indians.”
1723 – “An Act directing the trial of Slaves, committing capital crimes; and for the more effectual punishing conspiracies and insurrections of them; and for the better government of Negros, Mulattos, and Indians, bond or free”
Last, in 1723, along with Barbados before it, the Virginia Colony limited voting to whites alone—yes, including Irish and Italian in the enfranchised voting class (contrary to what I too often hear). In section XXIII of the Act named above, we read:
And be it further enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted and declared, That no free negro, mullatto, or ndian whatsoever, shall hereafter have any vote at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.
Conclusion, 1676 – 1723
Just as we had displayed in the last post the legal transition from a motley of disparate people groups in 1619—under indenture from distinct nations, tribes, and tongues—into a bifurcation of “Christians,” receiving legal protections and privileges, and disenfranchised black and brown servants and slaves, so we have witnessed in this post the transition from the protected class “Christian” to the protected class “white.” The only element lacking in the construction of the “white race” by 1723 is the concept of “race” itself. This would soon be supplied, and we will turn to this in our NEXT POST.
For more (much more!) on this topic, please see the following:
All Virginia acts and court documents quoted above are available and http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org