On this dayOct 20, 1669

Colonial Virginia Authorizes “Owners” to Kill “Rebellious Slaves”

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On October 20, 1669, the Virginia Colonial Assembly enacted a law that removed criminal penalties for enslavers who killed enslaved people resisting authority. The assembly justified the law on the grounds that “the obstinacy of many [enslaved people] cannot be suppressed by other than violent means.” The law provided that a slave owner's killing of an enslaved person could not constitute murder because the “premeditated malice” element of murder could not be formed against one’s own property.

In subsequent years, Virginia continued to reduce legal protections for enslaved people. In 1723, the assembly removed all penalties for the killing of enslaved people during “correction,” meaning that an enslaved person could be killed for an “offense” as minor as picking bad tobacco. The willful or malicious killing of an enslaved person could constitute murder, in theory, but the law excused the killing of an enslaved person if the killing was in any way provoked. In effect, enslavers could kill enslaved people with impunity in colonial-era Virginia, and the situation was similar in most other colonial territories. 

Following the American Revolution, many states created penalties for killing enslaved people -- but the loophole permitting the killing of an enslaved person during “correction” or to prevent “resistance” remained. As a result, throughout the course of slavery in this country's history, enslavers were rarely punished for killing enslaved people.

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