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A Petition on Behalf of a Slave Accused of Treason, 1781


CONTENT WARNING: Materials in the Library of Virginia's collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethinicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; religion; sex; and sexual orientation and gender identity.
During the Revolutionary War in 1781, an enslaved Black man named Billy, owned by John Tayloe, was indicted for "feloniously and traitorously" joining the British. He was captured and tried for treason, and pled not guilty, testifying that he had been forced against his will on a British warship. He argued that he had never taken up arms on behalf of the king. However, Billy was convicted and sentenced to death.

Within a week of the sentencing, two dissenting judges, Henry Lee and William Carr, argued to Governor Thomas Jefferson that an enslaved person could not commit treason, since an enslaved person did not constitute as a citizen. Billy's life was spared and he received a pardon in June 1781, yet what happened to him after is not known.

Billy's trial was not unique -- many enslaved people had previously faced charges of treason and robbery. The exception of enslaved people from treason prosecutions seemingly prevailed in Virginia. However, Billy's case is important because the trial forced white leaders to confront slavery and Virginia's law of treason -- Billy was an enslaved person tried for disobeying the law, yet shielded from execution because he was not accepted as a citizen.

Citation: Petition of Mann Page on the Behalf of Billy, June 7, 1781. Legislative Petitions, Prince William Co., n.d. [Received June 7, 1781], Record Group 78, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.


CE.2, VUS.3, VUS.4, VUS.5, GOVT.2

Suggested Questions

Analyze: How does this case show the contradictions in Revolutionary thought, such as the Declaration of Independence stating that "all men are created equal"? 

Analyze: 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?

In Their Shoes: If you were a slave during the Revolution, would you want to fight on the side of the British, Americans, or neither? Why or why not?

Up for Debate: Do you think that slaves should have been tried for treason?  Why or why not?