April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
Stopping the Slave Trade
On April 1 Virginia’s House of Burgesses petitioned King George III of England for “your Majesty’s paternal assistance in averting a Calamity of a most alarming Nature.” Specifically, they asked the king to let them ban the importation of slaves, which “hath long been considered as a Trade of great Inhumanity” and might “endanger the very Existance of your Majesty’s American Dominions.” Slaves from West Africa had allowed Virginia to grow and flourish over the previous century and a half, during which time the trade’s inhumanity had troubled few buyers. Now those same slave buyers wanted to cut off further imports. The reasons behind this apparent switch reveal Virginia’s ambivalent attitude toward the institution.
In general, Virginians thought a little slavery was good, but not too much. For most, the ideal of the sturdy yeoman included a few slaves laboring alongside him and his wife and children. With this system the colony could avoid creating an underclass of white laborers. It could also preserve its bogus notion of the benevolent master who treated his “servants” like family, perhaps even with vague plans for emancipation sometime in the hazy future.
Virginians shuddered when they looked at South Carolina, where absentee owners lived in Charleston mansions while overseers ran their huge plantations. By banning slave imports, Virginia hoped to avoid creating such an aristocracy. In addition, many farmers in the Tidewater region were switching to wheat after tobacco had depleted their soil. Since wheat required less labor, the change created a pool of surplus slaves and their offspring, whom the owners wanted to sell as dearly as possible. Meanwhile, those still growing tobacco wanted to keep production down to maintain prices.
Despite the burgesses’ fawning manner (“We, your Majesty’s dutiful and loyal Subjects . . . beg Leave, with all Humility, to approach your Royal Presence”), King George rejected their request. British merchants were making too much money from the slave trade to let it be banned, and the mother country wanted the colonies to produce as much raw material as they could. Nor did the king have any interest in encouraging the spirit of egalitarianism. His refusal of this and similar laws was mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and played an important role in the colonies’ decision to fight for their freedom.
In 1778 a newly independent Virginia finally outlawed the slave trade. Two years later the legislature voted to reward Revolutionary War veterans with three hundred acres of land —and a slave.