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3 Good Blacks and Useful Men Reputation and Free Black Mobility Many scholars have argued that the immediate post-Revolutionary years in the South represented a unique moment when the egalitarian principles promulgated during the Revolution challenged the slave system and the way of life that it supported for masters. Slavery at the time faced another assault from Quakers and from evangelical Christian thought propagated in particular by Baptists and Methodists. For a short time, many historians have written, this combination of secular and religious egalitarian ideals appeared to be on their way to ending slavery. Master after master, spurred by the apparent contradiction between those lofty ideals and the act of slaveholding , manumitted their slaves. The free black class ballooned across the Upper South. But racism soon reared its ugly head, and many white southerners saw this new class of free blacks as physically menacing as well as threatening to the slave system. Some in Hanover and Henrico counties petitioned the legislature as early as 1784, complaining of the “many evils [that] have arisen from a partial emancipation of slaves.” A petition from King and Queen County in 1800 argued that “a general emancipation . . . is impossible with our safety beside a commixture to our minds is abhorrent.” Thus by the early nineteenth century, according to those same scholars, that small window of opportunity for slavery’s demise at the hands of Revolutionary ideals had closed. Racist views hardened everywhere in the midst of the visible reality of a burgeoning and often newly manumitted free black class and in the wake of slave rebellion. First a slave revolt started in August 1791 in Haiti, making southern slave owners nervous. Then, the arrival of exiled Haitian planters and their slaves on the U.S. mainland worried many 76 Freedom Has a Face Americans that the bloody Haitian revolution might be imported as well. The Haitian revolt against slavery and French domination would continue until 1803, when France gave up its effort to reclaim the island, and Haiti was declared an independent republic. For Virginians, however, the pivotal event that supposedly brought the period of liberalization to a close occurred in 1800. Gabriel’s abortive rebellion in the Richmond area seemed to embody fears of a Haitian-style revolt in Virginia. Suddenly, white Virginians focused on the growing free black population in their midst as a real problem, one that had to be dealt with because those people of color might become the fuse that, when lighted, would explode the slave system and white supremacy along with it. A survey of legislation concerning slavery and free blacks in Virginia from roughly 1780 to 1810 appears to confirm that interpretation—postRevolutionary egalitarianism followed by a rising tide of white racism. In 1782, the Virginia legislature loosened a nearly sixty-year-old manumission rule. Until that year, the individual slaveholder had to seek approval of the colonial and later state assembly for any act of manumission, and only unusually meritorious or heroic service by the slave warranted freedom. The 1782 law allowed individual masters or mistresses to manumit slaves by will or by deed. Now, the individual slave owner became the final arbiter of a slave’s fitness for freedom. This loosening of manumission restrictions allowed slaveholders troubled by the contradiction between their religious or revolutionary ideals and the holding of people in bondage to divest themselves of slaves. Some scholars argue that as early as 1793, Virginia’s experiment with a less restrictive racial hierarchy was drawing white opposition, especially in urban areas such as Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk, where newly freed blacks congregated. The rising urban fears of a burgeoning and unruly free black class that intermingled all too freely with slaves and working-class whites prompted the Virginia state legislature in 1793 to pass a law demanding that “free negroes or mulattoes shall be registered and numbered in a book to be kept by the town clerk, which shall specify age, name, color, status and by whom, and in what court emancipated. Annually the Negro shall be delivered a copy for twenty-five cents. . . . Every free Negro shall once in every three years obtain a new certificate.” In actuality, that 1793 registration law did little to alter Virginia’s social landscape. White masters continued to free individual slaves as they saw fit. Good Blacks and Useful Men 77 The state’s free black population not only did not disappear but continued to grow. From 1790 to 1820, the free colored population...


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