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Virginia Vagrancy Law

  • Virginia Vagrancy Law, January 15, 1866
  • Virginia Vagrancy Law, January 15, 1866
  • Virginia Vagrancy Law, January 15, 1866
Southern laws like the Virginia Vagrancy Act of 1866 convinced reformers in Congress that the southern state governments could not or would not protect the rights of freedpeople.
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    Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1868
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    Andrew Johnson Political Cartoon, September 1, 1866
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    Jim Crow, Caricature of an African American
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Virginia Vagrancy Law, January 15, 1866

The first full session of the General Assembly of Virginia after the Civil War passed "An Act Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants" that was clearly intended to control the public behavior of former slaves. In some respects it resembled prewar black codes that restricted the personal liberty of enslaved and free black people. The new law authorized local law enforcement officials and overseers of the poor to arrest, detain, hire out to work, or expel anybody who had no obvious means of support, refused to work at wages normally paid in the locality, or went begging. The law provided no legal means for people to appeal acts of the local officials. Alfred Terry, the commanding general of the United States Army in Virginia, reportedly described the law as nothing less than slavery by another name.

White government officials in Virginia had distinguished between black and white servants, including African American slaves, for more than 200 years by then. Colonial and antebellum laws nearly always restricted the liberties of servants more than of free people and of African Americans more than of white people. The end of slavery effectively repealed all of the state's laws governing enslaved people, and the legislators undoubtedly feared that unless former owners offered them employment and places to live they posed a threat to public order.

Southern laws like the Virginia Vagrancy Act of 1866 convinced reformers in Congress that the southern state governments could not or would not protect the rights of freedpeople. During the ensuing two years Congress passed a series of Civil Rights Acts designed to protect the rights of the freedpeople and proposed and in June 1866 submitted to the states an amendment to the Constitution that granted freedpeople American citizenship and prohibited the states from denying them due process of law or the equal protection of the laws. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, invalidated the state debts that had been incurred during the Civil War as well as the Confederate government's public debt. It also placed restrictions on the civil and voting rights of men who before the war had held appointments under the United States government and then held office in the Confederate government or served in its army. The amendment, however, allowed Congress to remove those political disabilities by a two-thirds' vote. It also ordered the reduction of the congressional representation of any state that abridged the rights of freedpeople, and it gave Congress the "power to enforce, by appropriate legislation the provisions" of the amendment.

For Educators


1. What motivated Virginia's leaders to pass these vagrancy laws? What were their goals?

2. What provision of the 14th Amendment made vagrancy laws like these unconstitutional?

Further Discussion

1. Compare and contrast Virginia's slave code and the 1866 Vagrancy Laws. How are they similar?

2. What role did stereotypes about African Americans play in convincing white leaders in Virginia that they needed to pass laws such as these? What arguments, stemming from proslavery positions in the antebellum era, made them feels these laws were necessary?

Suggested Reading

Foner, Eric and Olivia Mahoney. America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War. New York: Harperennial, 1995.

Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–1870. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

Chap. 28.—An ACT providing for the punishment of Vagrants.

Passed January 15, 1866

 Whereas it is represented to the general assembly, That there hath lately been a great increase of idle and disorderly persons in some parts of this commonwealth, and unless some stringent laws are passed to restrain and prevent such vagrancy and idleness, the state will be overrun with dissolute and abandoned characters, to the great detriment of the public weal: For remedy whereof,
1. Be it enacted by the general assembly, That the overseers of the poor, or other officers having charge of the poor, or the special county police, or the police of any corporation, or any one or more of such persons, shall be and are hereby empowered and required, upon discovering any vagrant or vagrants within their respective counties or corporations, to make information thereof to any justice of the peace of their county or corporation, and to require a warrant for apprehending such vagrant or vagrants, to be brought before him or some other justice; and if, upon due examination, it shall appear that the person or persons are within the true description of a vagrant, as hereinafter mentioned, such justice shall, by warrant under his hand, order such vagrant or vagrants to be employed in labor for any term not exceeding three months, and, by any constable of such county or corporation, to be hired out for the best wages that can be procured; to be applied, except as hereafter provided, for the use of the vagrant or his family, as ordered by the justice. And if any without sufficient cause, run away from the person so employing him or them, he or they shall be apprehended, on the warrant of a justice, and returned to the custody of such hirer, who shall have, free of any further hire, the services of said vagrant for one month in addition to the original term of hiring; and said employer shall then have the power, if authorized by the justice, to work said vagrant, confined with ball and chain; or should said hirer decline to receive again said vagrant, then said vagrant shall be taken by the officer, upon the order of a justice, to the poor or work house, if there be any such in said county or corporation, and be delivered to the overseer or superintendent, who shall work said vagrant for the benefit of said county or corporation; or, if authorized by the justice, to work him, confined with ball and chain, for the period for which he would have had to serve his late employer, had he consented to receive him again; or should there be, when said runaway vagrant is apprehended, and public work going on in said county or corporation, then said vagrant, upon the order of a justice, shall be delivered over by said officer to the superintendent of such public work, who shall, for the like last mentioned period, work said vagrant on said public works, confined with ball and chain, if so authorized by the justice. But if there be no poor or work house in said county or corporation, and no public work then in progress therein, then, in that event, said justice may cause said vagrant to be delivered to any person who will take charge of him. Said person to have his services free of charge, except maintenance, for a like last mentioned period; and said person so receiving said vagrant is hereby empowered , if authorized by the justice, to work said vagrant confined with ball and chain; or should no such person be found, then said vagrant is to be committed to the county jail, there to be confined for the like period, and fed on bread and water. But the persons described as the fifth class of vagrants, in the second section of this act, may be arrested without warrant by the special county or corporation police, and when so arrested shall be taken before a justice, who shall proceed to dispose of them in the mode prescribed in this section, or may at once direct them to be committed to prison for a period not exceeding three months, to be kept in close confinement and fed on bread and water.
2. The following described persons shall be liable to the penalties imposed by law upon vagrants:
First—All persons who shall unlawfully return into any county or corporation whence they have been legally removed.
Second—All persons who, not having wherewith to maintain themselves and their families, live idly and without employment, and refuse to work for the usual and common wages give to the other laborers in the like work in the place where they then are.
Third—All persons who shall refuse to perform the work which shall be allotted to them by the overseers of the poor as aforesaid.
Fourth—All persons going about from door to door, or placing themselves in streets, highways or other roads, to beg alms, and all other persons wandering abroad and begging, unless disabled or incapable of labor.
Fifth—All persons who shall come from any place without this commonwealth to any place within it, and shall be found loitering and residing therein, and shall follow no labor, trade, occupation or business, and have no visible means of subsistence, and can give no reasonable account of themselves or their business in such place.
3. All costs and expenses incurred shall be paid out of the hire of such vagrant, if sufficient; and if not sufficient, the deficiency shall be paid by the county or corporation.
4. This Act Shall be in force from its passage.