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The Slave Experience: Legal Rights & Gov't
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Original Documents Legal Rights & Gov't

Acts of the Virginia Commonwealth
March 1642-43
December 1662
October 1705
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Document Description
These three acts of the Virginia Commonwealth demonstrate the progression towards race-based slavery that took place in the colonies. The first was passed at a time when white and black indentured servants and black slaves held similar status in the eyes of the law. By 1705, Virginia defined slaves according to race and reduced black slaves to the status of property.


MARCH 1642-3
ACT XXVI, 1:257
Charles I, King of England

WHEREAS divers controversies have risen between masters and servants being brought into the colony without indentures or covenants to testifie their agreements whereby both masters and servants have been often prejudiced, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed for prevention of future controversies of the like nature, that such servants as shall be imported haveing no indentures or covenants either men or women if they be above twenty year old to serve fowre year, if they shall be above twelve and under twenty to serve five years, And if under twelve to serve seaven years.

Act XII, 2:170
Charles II, King of England

Negro womens children to serve according to the condition of the mother.

WHEREAS some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or [free,] Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any christian shall committ [fornication] with a negro man or woman, hee or shee so offending shall pay double the [fines] imposed by the former act.

Chap XXIII, 3:333
Anne I, Queen of England

An act declaring the Negro, Mulatto, and Indian slaves within this dominion, to be real estate.

I. FOR the better settling and preservation of estates within this dominion,

II. 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 from and after the passing of this act, all negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves, in all courts of judicature, and other places, within this dominion, shall be held, taken, and adjudged, to be real estate (and not chattels;) and shall descend unto the heirs and widows of persons departing this life, according to the manner and custom of land of inheritance, held in fee simple.

III. Provided always, That nothing in this act contained, shall be taken to extend to any merchant or factor, bringing any slaves into this dominion, or having any consignments thereof, unto them, for sale: But that such slaves, whilst they remain unsold, in the posession of such merchant, or factor, or of their executors, administrators, or assigns, shall, to all intents and purposes, be taken, held, and adjudged, to be personal estate, in the same condition they should have been in, if this act had never been made.

IV. Provided also, That all such slaves shall be liable to the paiment of debts, and may be taken by execution, for that end, as other chattels or personal estate may be.

V. Provided also, That no such slaves shall be liable to be escheated, by reason of the decease of the proprietor of the same, without lawful heirs: But all such slaves shall, in that case, be accounted and go as chattels, and other estate personal.

VI. Provided also, That no person, selling or alienating any such slave, shall be obliged to cause such sale or alienation to be recorded, as is required by law to be done, upon the alienation of other real estate: But that the said sale or alienation may be made in the same manner as might have been done before the making of this act.

VII. Provided also, That this act, or any thing therein contained, shall not extend, nor be construed to extend, to give any person, being owner of any slave or slaves, and not seized of other real estate, the right or privilege as a freeholder, meant, mentioned, and intended, by one act of this present session of assembly, intituled, An act for regulating the elections of Burgesses, for settling their privileges, and for ascertaining their allowances.

VIII. Provided also, That it shall and may be lawful, for any person, to sue for, and recover, any slave, or damage, for the detainer, trover, or conversion therof, by action personal, as might have been done if this act had never been made.

IX. Provided always, That where the nature of the case shall require it, any writ De Partitione facienda, or of dower, may be sued forth and prosecuted, to recover the right and possession of any such slave or slaves.

X. Provided, and be it enacted, That when any person dies intestate, leaving several children, in that case all the slaves of such person, (except the widow's dower, which is to be first set apart) shall be inventoried and appraised; and the value therof shall be equally divided amongst all the said children; and the several proportions, according to such valuation and appraisement, shall be paid by the heir (to whom the said slaves shall descend, by virtue of this act) unto all and every the other said children. And thereupon, it shall and may be lawful for the said other children, and every of them, and their executors or administrators, as the case shall be, to commence and prosecute an action upon the case, at the common law, against such heir, his heirs, executors and administrators, for the recovery of their said several proportions, respectively.

XI. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That if any widow, seised of any such slave or slaves, as aforesaid, as of the dower of her husband, shall send, or voluntarily permit to be sent out of this colony and dominion, such slave or slaves, or any of their increase, without the lawful consent of him or her in revesion, such widow shall forfeit all and every such slave or slaves, and all other the dower which she holds of the endowment of her husband's estate, unto the person or persons that shall have the reversion thereof; any law, usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding. And if any widow, seized as aforesaid, shall be married to an husband,who shall send, or voluntary permit to be sent out of this colony and dominion, any such slave or slaves, or any of their increase, without the consent of him or her in reversion; in such case, it shall be lawful for him or her in reversion, to enter into, possess and enjoy all the state which such husband holdeth, in right of his wife's dower, for and during the life of the said husband.

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