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When Being Black Became 'Very Penal'


I happened upon an exchange of letters this week that I found remarkable. In 1735, a British government lawyer was routinely reviewing the business of Virginia’s General Assembly—making sure those unwashed colonists hadn’t really gone and done it this time—when he discovered a law so unfair, so unreasonable, that he demanded an explanation.
What was the law? It denied free blacks the right to vote just because they were … black. “I cannot see why one Freeman should be used worse than another merely on account of his complexion,” Richard West wrote.
When asked to justify the law, the Virginia governor, William Gooch, did not claim that blacks, whether free or slave, were inferior and therefore unworthy of the vote. He was much more straightforward:

In answer thereto it is to be Noted, as I am well informed, that just before the Meeting of that Assembly [in 1723], there had been a Conspiracy discovered amongst the Negros to Cutt off the English, wherein the Free-Negros & Mulattos were much Suspected to have been Concerned, (which will forever be the Case) and tho’ there could be no legal Proof, so as to Convict them, yet such was the Insolence of the Free-Negros at that time, that the next Assembly though it necessary, not only to make the Meetings of Slaves very Penal, but to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free-Negros & Mulattos by excluding them from that great Priviledge of a Freeman [i.e., voting], well knowing they always did, and ever will, adhere to and favour the Slaves.

Shorter Gooch: There was a conspiracy. We have no legal proof that the free blacks were involved but we’re going to punish them anyway. Why? Because they’re black, which means that, when push comes to shove, they will always “favour the Slaves.”
Race, in other words, was not a condition which rendered people inferior; rather, it was a tool by which the government rendered people powerless. Governor Gooch was well aware of this, of course, and his superiors in London accepted his explanation without comment. True, race was distasteful to them, but realpolitik was second nature.
IMAGE: Christian and Rebecca Protten, ca. 1740–1741; oil painting by Johann Valentin Haidt. Courtesy of The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas.

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