Governer Floyd's Message to the General Assembly, December 6, 1831
[p. 9] Fellow-Citizens of the Senate and of the House of Delegates:
You are again assembled, under circumstances calculated to inspire the community with a just expectation, that your deliberations will be followed by measures equal in energy and decision, to the crisis in which your country is placed: an expectation, which I am sure will not be disappointed. The deep interest which the citizens in every part of this Commonwealth have felt and manifested, in relation to occurrences of a grave and distressing character, which have taken place since your adjournment, new, unexpected and heretofore unknown to the State; together with the anxiety felt in the future fate of some of the great subjects which were agitated at your last session, and the unpleasant aspect of our Federal Relations,, all conspire to cause the people to turn their eyes upon you at this time, with profound and fixed attention. You alone possess the power of accomplishing all the great objects which the public desire, and much of the
future welfare of this Republic depends upon your present deliberations; deliberations, which doubtless will be first turned to the melancholy subject which has filled the country with affliction, and one of the fairest counties in the Commonwealth with mourning.
Whilst we were enjoying the abundance of the last season, reposing in the peace and quiet of domestic comfort and safety, we were suddenly aroused from that security, by receiving information that a portion of our fellow-citizens had fallen victims to the relentless fury of assassins and murderers, even whilst wrapped in profound sleep, and that those bloody deeds had been perpetrated in a spirit of wantonness and cruelty, unknown to savage warfare, even in their most revolting form.
In August last, a banditti of slaves, consisting of but few at first, and not at any time exceeding a greater number than seventy, rose upon some of the unsuspecting and defenceless inhabitants of Southampton, and under circumstances of the most shocking and horrid barbarity, put to death sixty-one persons, of whom the greater number were women and helpless children. Much of this bloody work was done on Monday morning; and on the day following, about ten o'clock, the last murder was committed. The citizens of that and the adjacent counties promptly assembled, and all real danger was speedily terminated.
The conspiracy was at first believed to be general; wherefore I was induced to call into service a force sufficient to crush at a single blow all opposing power, whatever might be its strength. To this end, detachments of Light Infantry from the seventh and fifty-fourth Regiments, and from the fourth Regiment of Cavalry and fourth Light Artillery, under Captains Harrison and Richardson, were ordered to repair to the scene of action with all possible speed, and report to Brigadier General Eppes, who had been desired to assume the command and call out his Brigade. Arms and ammunition were amply furnished, and thrown into all the counties which were suspected of disaffection. Two Regiments in Brunswick and Greensville were called into service by their commanding officers, under the law vesting them with power to do so, for such purposes. These troops being within the Brigade commanded by Brigadier General William H. Brodnax, that officer assumed the command and remained in the field until all danger had passed.
It gives me great pleasure to communicate to the General Assembly, the high satisfaction I feel in bearing testimony to the zeal, promptitude and dispatch with which every officer discharged his duty, and the cheerful alacrity with which every citizen obeyed the call of the law.
Though the call upon the Light Troops was so promptly obeyed, yet before their arrival the revolt was subdued, and many of these deluded fanatics were either captured, or were placed beyond the possibility of escape; some had already been immolated by an excited people. I feel the highest gratification in adding, that the readiest aid was afforded by Commodore Elliott of the United States' Navy, and a detachment of sailors from the ship Natchez under his command, who, notwithstanding they had just returned from a long and distant cruise, repaired to the scene of action with a highly creditable alacrity. Much is also due to Colonel House, the commanding officer at Fortress Monroe, for the promptitude with which he detached a part of his force to our aid, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Worth, to whom similar praise is due, as like-wise to the officers and soldiers under his command, for the promptitude with which they also repaired to our assistance, so soon as it came to their knowledge. All necessity for their co-operation had ceased, before they reached their point of destination; but they are not the less entitled to commendation on that account.
All of those who participated in the bloody tragedy, have expiated their crimes by undergoing public execution, whilst some, who had been condemned, have been reprieved for reasons which were deemed satisfactory. There is much reason to believe, that the spirit of insurrection was not confined to Southampton; many convictions have taken place elsewhere, and some few in distant counties. From the documents, which I herewith lay before you, there is too much reason to believe those plans of treason, insurrection and murder, have been designed, planned and matured by unrestrained fanatics in some of the neighbouring States, who find facilities in distributing their views and plans amongst our population, either through the post office, or by agents sent for that purpose throughout our territory.
Upon inspecting these documents, and contemplating that state of things which they are intended to produce, I felt it my duty to open a correspondence with the Governors of some of the neighbouring powers of this Confederacy, to [p. 10] preserve, as far as possible, the good understanding which exists, and which ought to be cherished between the different members of this Union. The result of this correspondence will be made known to you, so soon as it is ascertained.
The most active among ourselves, in stirring up the spirit of revolt, have been the negro preachers. They had acquired great ascendancy over the minds of their fellows, and infused all their opinions, which had prepared them for the development of the final design: there is also some reason to believe, those preachers have a perfect understanding in relation to these plans throughout the eastern counties; and have been the channels through which the inflammatory papers and pamphlets, brought here by the agents and emissaries from other States, have been circulated amongst our slaves. The facilities, thus afforded for plotting treason and conspiracy to rebel and make insurrection, have been great. Through the indulgence of the magistracy and the laws, large collections of slaves have been permitted to take place, at any time through the week for the ostensible purpose of indulging in religious worship, but in many instances the real purpose with the preacher was of a different character. The sentiments and sometimes the words of these inflammatory pamphlets, which the meek and charitable of other States have seen cause to distribute as fire-brands in the bosom of our society, have been read. What shall be thought of those fiends, who, having no interest in our community, nevertheless, seek to excite a servile war; a war, which exhausts itself in the massacre of unoffending women and children on the one side, and on the other, in the sacrifice of all who have borne part in the savage undertaking? Not only should the severest punishment be inflicted upon those disturbers of our peace, whenever they or their emissaries are found within our reach, but decisive measures should be adopted to make all their measures abortive. The public good requires the negro preachers to be silenced, who, full of ignorance, are incapable of inculcating any thing but notions of the wildest superstition, thus preparing fit instruments, in the hands of the crafty agitators, to destroy the public tranquility.
As the means of guarding against the possible repetition of these sanguinary scenes, I cannot fail to recommend to your early attention, the revision of all the laws intended to preserve, in due subordination, the slave population of our State. In urging these considerations upon you, let me not be understood, as expressing the slightest doubt or apprehension of general results. All communities are liable to suffer from the dagger of the murderer and midnight assassin, and it behooves them to guard against them. With us, the first returning light dispels the danger, and soon witnesses the murderer in chains.
Though means have been taken by those of other States to agitate our community, and discontent our slaves and incite them to attempt an unattainable object, some proof is also furnished, that for the class of free people of colour, they have opened more enlarged views, and urge the achievement of a higher destiny, by means for the present less violent, but not differing in the end from those presented to the slaves. That class of the community, our laws have heretofore treated with indulgent kindness, and many instances of solicitude for their welfare have marked the progress of legislation. If the slave is confined by law to the estate of his master, as it is advisable he should be, the free people of colour may nevertheless convey all the incendiary pamphlets and papers with which we are sought to be inundated.
This class, too, has been the first to place itself in hostile array against every measure designed to remove them from amongst us. Though it will be indispensably necessary for them to withdraw from this community, yet in the spirit of kindness which has ever characterized the Legislature of Virginia, it is submitted whether, as the last benefit which we can confer upon them, it may not be wise to appropriate annually a sum of money to aid in their removal from this Commonwealth.
Whilst recent events had created apprehensions in the minds of a few, some agitation was also more extensively felt: wherefore it was deemed prudent, to arm the militia in a manner calculated to quiet ail apprehensions, and arms were accordingly furnished to nearly all the regiments on the eastern frontier. The want of them, upon this sudden emergency, was so sensibly felt by those in the vicinity of Norfolk, as to induce Commodore Warrington, in command of the navy yard in Gosport, to distribute a portion of the public arms under his care. That gallant and patriotic officer did not hesitate to assume the responsibility of this step, and it is gratifying to perceive that his conduct has met the approbation of the public functionaries. The policy of disarming the militia, it is believed, was pursued as a measure of economy, as the men and officers had been culpably negligent in their attention to their preservation, so that many were lost, or by neglect became unfit for service. Now, however, the necessity for preserving them is distinctly felt, and a doubt cannot be entertained, that more care will be taken of them in future. I could not weigh the expense incurred by this measure, against the possible sacrifice of life, much less the possible repetition of the scenes of Southampton.
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[p. 13] The Constitution of our State has made it the duty of the Governor "to communicate to the Legislature, at every session, the condition of the Commonwealth." To discharge this duty, it will be necessary for me to call your attention to our Federal Relations. The deep interest felt by all the States, in the manner in which that part of their concerns has been managed by the Federal Government, to which they have delegated certain defined and limited powers, would make me highly culpable if I failed to notice them, or omitted to speak of them to you, as they deserve.
[p. 14] The General Assembly have never failed to keep a watchful eye over those rights which were reserved to the States, and the people, by the Compact or Constitution, when the several States, for their own benefit and convenience, created the Federal Government. That Government, merely the Agent of the States, and only allowed to exercise those powers which were intended to operate externally, and upon nations foreign to those composing the confederacy, has too often transcended the limits prescribed to it, and evinces an increasing disregard to the rights of the States, by the passage of unconstitutional acts, and by propositions for others, if it be possible, of a still more unwarrantable character. The complaints, memorials and protests, of some of the Sovereign States of this Confederacy, have been unnoticed or disregarded, and the Constitution seems about to be merged in the will of an unrestrained majority. No one can now doubt the tendency of that Government, or the numerous evils which must ensue, unless speedily arrested in its downward career. If the will of that majority is unrestrained, and that Government is suffered to search through their own records for precedents, upon which to found their claim to power, and thus melt away the solder of the Federal chain, by making that constitutional now, because heretofore the same acts have been done by themselves, it is equivalent to the actual destruction of that instrument, and the substitution of a Government unrestrained in its powers, and unlimited in its sway. It is even now strongly insinuated, that the States cannot interpose to arrest an unconstitutional measure: if so, there is already no limit to Federal power, and our short experience has shewn us the utter insufficiency of all restraints upon parchment.
Virginia resisted the usurpations of England, and encountered the hazard of war for political existence, and sought to guard against oppression, that her citizens might enjoy the liberty which belonged to them, and appropriate to their own use that which their labor had earned. The Tariff law, of which all the Southern States so justly complain, is calculated to take from our citizens, the profits they have earned by their industry, and is also a violation of the Constitution. Not only has this been done, but laws have been passed, appropriating the public money for purposes foreign to, and unwarranted by, the Constitution. Agents have been appointed to negotiate treaties without consulting the Senate; and propositions have been made to seize upon the surplus revenue in the Treasury of the United States, to be divided among the States according to representation, though some of them export nothing, and consequently contribute little to that fund; which is, in reality, reducing the States to the condition of vassals and pensioners, paid by funds illegally exacted from them.
If these laws, these acts, and this claim to power, be constitutional, the Constitution of the United States has been misunderstood, and is insufficient to accomplish the objects for which it was designed, that of preserving our liberties and our rights. If they are unconstitutional, the Federal Government has usurped the rights of the States; and by constituting itself the sole judges of its powers, has created a new political system, subversive of that, to which allegiance is due.
If legislative expediency is to triumph over constitutional rights, and the obligation of oaths be disregarded, then all human means for the security of liberty will avail us nothing, and freedom is gone forever.
We may see these laws continued, by States combining to advance their own local interest, and using their power to oppress the minority which would then be without redress. These considerations ought not to be disregarded, at least by the Southern States, who are the minority, but the producers and exporters of the products, which bring into the Treasury the wealth, to obtain which, all the safeguards of liberty are about to be crumbled to pieces. No State has made so many sacrifices for this Union as Virginia, to which she has been so much devoted. She has calmly awaited the period when a returning sense of justice would lead to an alleviation of her burthens, and an abandonment of those unconstitutional measures. Galling as the oppression has been, under which we have laboured, we have been content to make our situation known through our members in Congress and by legislative resolves. Heretofore, the public debt has been the pretext for this oppression: now, however, it is upon the eve of extinction, when for the sake of Union, if not justice, we hope a change in these fatal measures. But I fear doomed to disappointment, we must now prepare to combat a scheme which has been suggested, and has enlisted or is likely to enlist strong interest in its support. I refer to the scheme of distributing the surplus revenue among the States. The Legislatures of two of the largest States have already expressed for it their approval, and the President of the United States has recommended it to Congress in his two last annual messages. No scheme could be devised more ruinous to us, and the other Southern States than this. Should it be adopted, all hope of relief from this oppressive system of measures will have vanished, as each year will show results which will present the strongest allurements to their increase. Those who contribute least, will be tempted to urge forward the most oppressive expedients, to increase their portion of the spoil; while those who pay most, at best receive back but a small portion of what themselves contribute; thus producing the combination of large States, to tax the smaller for local purposes, and to draw money from the pockets of one portion of this confederacy to enrich another. All other questions which have already agitated Congress and the people, will be lost in this most terrible of all, and calculated to appall the stoutest mind. A judicious Tariff will then mean, that system which will lead to the greater exactions upon the South; and must, if persevered in, lead to the utter subversion of the entire frame of government. If the lingering hope which is still entertained should again be disappointed, it will rest with the people, and with you their representatives, to adopt such measures as may be deemed necessary to guard them against the evils of a system not only unconstitutional, but unjust, oppressive and ruinous. Nor will you be deterred by threats from any quarter from pursuing the course which duty requires. The strong arm of power will never be able to crush the spirit of freemen, or deter them from exercising their rights and interposing barriers to the progress of usurpation.
Wishing you a pleasant session, and a happy issue to all your deliberations, I am, gentlemen, your fellow-citizen,
In his annual message to the General Assembly of Virginia in 1831, Governor John Floyd (1783 -1837) blamed the Southampton revolt on the rhetoric of black preachers, the influence of free African Americans, and the publications of northern abolitionists.