For enslaved men and women in Virginia, the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal,” offered a promise of freedom that most of them never obtained. Late in the war, the colonies authorized recruitment of African Americans, and in 1783 the General Assembly passed an act to free African American men who had fought as soldiers. In November 1775 the last royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, had offered freedom to slaves of rebels who left their master to fight in the king's army. More enslaved Virginians gained their freedom fighting for the king of Great Britain than gained their freedom fighting for American independence; and more enslaved Virginians died trying than succeeded.
In 1781, late in the war, Billy, an enslaved man who belonged to the estate of John Tayloe (1721–1779), a wealthy planter, member of the governor's Council, and iron manufacturer, ran away from Prince William County and was captured, tried and convicted of treason. He pled not guilty and testified that he had been forced to go aboard a British warship against his will and had never taken up arms on behalf of the king. Following the trial, Mann Page, an executor of Tayloe's estate, and two of the judges argued to Governor Thomas Jefferson that a slave, being a noncitizen who did not owe allegiance to the state, could not commit treason. Jefferson ordered the execution postponed, and Page then petitioned the House of Delegates to grant Billy a pardon on the grounds that a slave could not legally commit treason. Although Billy's life was spared, the legal doctrine that a slave could not commit treason was coupled with a denial that enslaved people could be citizens invested with the rights for which the American Revolution was being fought.
1. Was it fair for Billy the slave to be tried for treason?
2. Why was Mann Page petitioning for Billy instead of Billy's petitioning for himself?
3. Why doesn't Billy have a last name?
4. What is a petition?
5. Why don't we know more about who Billy was, where he was born, and what happened to him after this case?
1. What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States? What rights and privileges does it convey? Does being a citizen impose limitations on a person?
2. Why might a slave have decided to fight for the British? Why might a slave have decided to fight with the Americans?
3. According to the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal” though it is evident, through the petition of Mann Page, that not all were equal. Consider what Mann Page's petition says about slavery at the time. Since Billy was allowed to live, what does that say about America's attitude towards slavery on a whole? If all men were truly considered equal would Billy's life have been spared?
Lanning, Michael L.African Americans in the Revolutionary War. New York City, New York: Citadel Press, 2000.
Kneebone, John T. et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998, 1:490–491.
Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.