On this day in 1781, four of six Prince William County oyer and terminer judges convicted the enslaved African American Billy of treason and sentenced him to hang. They placed his value at £27,000 current money. The two dissenting judges immediately appealed to Governor Thomas Jefferson for a reprieve. Billy had been captured aboard a British ship during the American Revolution, but denied fighting for the enemy voluntarily.
Within a week of the verdict the two dissenting judges argued to Jefferson that a slave, being a noncitizen, could not commit treason. They wrote that a slave “not being Admited to the Priviledges of a Citizen owes the State No Allegiance and that the Act declaring what shall be treason cannot be intended by the Legislature to include slaves who have neither lands or other property to forfiet.”
Billy received a gubernatorial reprieve until the end of June, and the legislature pardoned him on June 14, 1781. What happened to him after that is not known.
Here’s a video discussion of the case, courtesy of our friends at the Library of Virginia.
A version of this post was originally published on May 8, 2012.
RE: THE TITLE: The title of this post can be explained (for what it’s worth) here.
IMAGE: A Revolutionary War painting depicting the Virginia Navy cruiser Capt. Barron taking the British navy brig HMS Oxford is displayed at the Navy Art Gallery at the Washington Navy Yard. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth G. Takada/Released)