Petition from the Citizens of Northampton County,
December 6, 1831
In this petition, citizens of Northampton County declared that free African Americans posed a danger to white society because they would join with slaves in any effort to rise up against slaveholding whites. They asked the Virginia Assembly to remove all free African Americans to Liberia.
Slave Population, 1830: 3,734 (43% of total population)
To the Legislature of Virginia:
The petition of the undersigned, Citizens of the County of Northampton, respectfully represents:
By the last census of the U States, it appears that there are in this county 3573 whites, 3734 slaves, and 1334 free persons of color. By a comparison with the census of preceding years, it also appears that the proportion of free persons of color to our white inhabitants [is] annually increasing. A fact of this sort under any circumstances would be a source of well-founded uneasiness. The free persons of color, in Virginia, form an anomalous population, standing in a relation to our society, which naturally exposes them to distrust and suspicion. Inferior to the whites in intelligence and information, degraded by the stain, which attaches to their color, excluded from many civil privileges, which the humblest white man enjoys, and denied all participation in the government, it would be wholly absurd to expect from them any attachment to our laws and institutions, or any sympathy with our people. On the other hand, the enjoyment of personal freedom is in itself, a sufficient mark of distinction between them and our slaves, and elevates them, at least in their own opinion, to a higher condition on life. Standing thus in a middle position between the two extremes of our society, and despairing of ever attaining an equality with the higher grade, it is natural that they connect themselves in feeling and interest, with the slaves, among whom many of their domestic ties are formed, and to whom they are bound by the sympathies scarcely less strong, which springs from their common complexion. Independent, therefore, of any particular facts, calculated to excite our alarm, the worst evils might justly be apprehended from such an increase of their numbers as would give them confidence in their physical power, while it would enlarge their means of information[,] facilitate their intercommunications, and thus add to their capabilities of mischief. Unhappily, however, this is no longer a subject of mere speculation. The scenes that have recently passed around us contain a melancholy and impressive lesson upon this subject to which the most careless and supine among us cannot be inattentive.
The caution, which these scenes suggest, is of peculiar importance to us. From the number of our free negroes, and from the idle and vicious habits of most of them, we have stronger reason than exists in most of our counties to suspect dangerous intrigues with our slaves; nor can we be insensible to the great aid which our slaves would derive from that source, in any actual attempts against us. Our peninsular situation also cuts us off from that prompt assistance from other parts of the State, on which every country exposed to the horrors of a servile insurrection, would naturally rely. While, therefore, we have full confidence in our power of self-defense under all circumstances, and while we entertain no fear that any attempt of that kind would be ultimately successful, even against our own unassisted efforts, we might justly apprehend greater difficulty in suppressing it, and more disasters from its progress, than would be looked for in most other places. Deeply impressed with these considerations, we have met together in our respective neighborhoods, in order to consult on the most expedient mode of getting rid of our free negroes, whom we regard as a most prolific source of evil to our community.
In these meetings, we have adopted the following resolutions:
1. Resolved, That it is absolutely necessary not only to correct government of our slaves, but also to the peace and security of our society, that all free persons of color should be promptly removed from this county.
2. That, as a measure of this sort will necessarily produce much private inconvenience and suffering, we will endeavor so to effect our object as to render the calamity as little oppressive as possible.
3. That we will not willingly entail upon any other white community an evil, which we feel to be intolerable to ourselves.
4. That free negroes of our county ought, if practicable, to be sent to Liberia in Africa.
5. That to effect their removal, a committee [be formed] to borrow a sum of money not exceeding fifteen thousand dollars; for the payment of which a tax shall annually be imposed upon each citizen of this county equal to that tax he may pay to the state, so that such a tax be at least equal to his revenue tax of the most recent year, until the principle and interest shall be paid.
6. That the committee appointed by the 5th resolution be authorized to open a correspondence with the Agent of the Colonization Society, to ascertain what aid can be immediately, or in short time, afforded by that Society, for the removal of the free negroes, from this county to Liberia, in Africa.
7. That so soon as the sum authorized to be borrowed by the 5th resolution, or such part thereof as the Committee shall think necessary to borrow … shall … [the] committee make known the same to the free negroes, and to make arrangements for the removal to Liberia of such of them as are willing to go there.
8. That our representatives in the Legislature be instructed to use their best exertions to procure the passage of a law giving effect to the preceding resolutions; and if no such law can be procured, that they devote themselves zealously to any and every other plan of legislation which may be calculated to rid us promptly, effectually, and entirely of our free colored population.
9. That our representatives be instructed to vote for every measure, whether of a general or local character, which may have for its object the removal of free people of color from the State at large, or any part thereof.
10. That after the arrangements for their removal have been made, we pledge ourselves not to employ or have any dealings whatever with any free negro in the county.
11. That we pledge ourselves not to rent to any free negro any house or land, and that we will forthwith give notice to those with whom we have contracted, to quit on the first day of June next.
12. That we earnestly recommend to the owners of vessels in this county, immediately, or as soon as practicable, to discontinue the use and employment of slaves and free negroes on board of their vessels as we do firmly believe the practice dangerous to the peace and safety of our society.
13. That a Petition to the General Assembly, in conformity with the preceding resolutions, and more particularly the 5th, be forthwith prepared and presented to the citizens for their signature.
14. That the proceedings of this meeting communicated to the citizens of Accomack county, in such manner as the Chairman of this meeting thinks best with a request of concurrence on the part of the citizens of this County.
It will be received from these Resolutions that we are willing to rely for the accomplishment of our object upon our own resources, without asking any assistance from the Treasury of the State. Should it, however, fall in with the course of public policy to extend such assistance to particular communities circumstanced as ours is, we shall acknowledge in on our part with proper gratitude. Yet, we do not solicit any such support. The evil of which we complain is found to be no longer endurable, without the most serious danger to the peace and security of our county, and we are willing to rid ourselves of it at every sacrifice and every hazard. The corrupting influences of that part of our population have long been felt as a serious impediment in the way of our prosperity; and the time has now arrived, when we can no longer doubt that they are equally hostile to our personal safety. We therefore earnestly, yet respectfully, pray that such a law may pass as will enable us promptly to carry into effect such of the preceding Resolutions as are properly the subjects of legislation. And as we are not without apprehension from the number and character of those on whom such a law will operate, that it will not be executed without some opposition, we trust that it will be armed with all adequate sanctions, from whatever source such opposition may arise, and your Petitions will ever pray.
From Erik S. Root, Sons of the Fathers: The Virginia Slavery Debates of 1831–1832 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2010), 310-312.