Tameka Hobbs, historian and educational programs manager, discusses trial of enslaved African named Billy below:
Billy (fl. 1770s–1780s)
Contributed by Philip J. Schwarz and Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Billy was an enslaved African American who became a principal in a court case during the American Revolution (1775–1783). In 1781, the Prince William County Court indicted him for waging war against the state from a British armed ship. Despite his testimony that he had been forced to board the vessel against his will and had never taken up arms on behalf of the British, the court convicted Billy of treason and sentenced him to be hanged. Two dissenting judges argued to Governor Thomas Jefferson that a slave, being a noncitizen, could not commit treason. Billy received a gubernatorial reprieve, and the General Assemblypardoned him on June 14, 1781. What happened to him after that is not known. Billy made his mark on history because his trial forced white leaders to confront the logic of slavery. Excluded from the protections conferred by citizenship, he was ultimately shielded from execution because Virginia’s law of treason could not logically apply to him.
Petition Concerning the Slave Billy Library of Virginia
The Prince William County Court indicted “Billy, alias Will, alias William” for “feloniously and traitorously” waging war on April 2, 1781, from an armed vessel against the new state of Virginia. Many African Americans joined the British forces, who had offered freedom to slaves willing to serve the Crown, although other blacks actively supported the American cause. Billy pleaded not guilty and testified that he had been forced to board the vessel against his will and had never taken up arms on behalf of the British. On May 8, 1781, however, four of six Prince William County oyer and terminer judges convicted Billy of treason and sentenced him to hang. They placed his value at £27,000 current money. An advertisement placed in the April 21, 1774, edition of the Virginia Gazette by Thomas Lawson seeks the capture of a runaway slave named “Billy or Will
Within a week of the verdict Henry Lee (1729–1787) and William Carr, the two dissenting judges, andMann Page, one of Tayloe’s executors, argued to Governor Thomas Jefferson that a slave, being a noncitizen, could not commit treason. Lee and Carr 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.” Their argument about citizenship was very similar to one made on March 19, 1767, by Arthur Lee in his influential public letter on slavery directed to Virginia’s legislators and published in William Rind’s Virginia Gazette. In Billy’s defense Henry Lee and William Carr also contested the evidence used against him. 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. Billy’s treason trial was neither the first nor the last such prosecution of a bondsman during the American Revolution. In Norfolk County in 1778 a slave named Bob faced charges of treason and robbery. Like Billy he pleaded not guilty but received the death sentence, and he may have been hanged. During the same period at least one other slave, a man named Sancho, was found guilty of warlike action against the state and hanged, while still another, Jack, may have escaped execution. Similar judicial actions against supposed treason occurred during times of public peril. In the aftermath of Nat Turner’s Rebellion,Southampton County justices in October 1831 heard the charge of treason against Jack and Shadrach, only to dismiss the charge tersely: “a slave cannot be tried in this court for Treason.” This exemption of enslaved people from treason prosecutions appears to have prevailed in Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865) as well. Billy made his mark on history because his trial forced white leaders to confront the logic of the peculiar institution. His case was doubly ironic. A slave, he was nevertheless tried for disobeying one of the laws of the commonwealth. Excluded from the protections conferred by citizenship, he was still shielded from execution because Virginia’s law of treason could not logically apply to him.
John Tayloe II
- 1754 – Around this year an enslaved African American named Billy is born, perhaps in Richmond County.
- April 1774 – An enslaved African American named Billy—possibly the same Billy later charged with treason—runs away from Thomas Lawson, iron agent for John Tayloe at the Neabsco Furnace in Prince William County.
- 1778 – An enslaved African American named Bob faces charges of treason and robbery in Norfolk County. He receives a death sentence and may have hanged.
- 1781 – The enslaved African American named Billy is part of the estate of John Tayloe, a wealthy planter and member of the governor’s Council.
- April 2, 1781 – The Prince William County Court indicts “Billy, alias Will, alias William,” an enslaved African American, for waging war from an armed vessel against the new state of Virginia.
- May 8, 1781 – Four of six Prince William County oyer and terminer judges convict the enslaved African American Billy of treason and sentence him to hang. They place his value at £27,000 current money. The two dissenting judges immediately appeal to Governor Thomas Jefferson for a reprieve.
- June 14, 1781 – The General Assembly pardons the enslaved African American named Billy, after he was convicted of treason against the state of Virginia and sentenced to hang. As a slave, he is not considered a citizen and therefore cannot be convicted of treason.
- 1782 – The estate of John Tayloe, a wealthy planter and member of the governor’s Council, includes several enslaved men named Billy, one of whom is likely the same one charged with treason in 1781.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:Schwarz, P. J., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography (2011, June 23). Billy (fl. 1770s–1780s). RetrievedFebruary 27, 2013, from Encyclopedia Virginia: http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Billy_fl_1770s-1780s.
- MLA Citation:Schwarz, Philip J. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. “Billy (fl. 1770s–1780s).” Encyclopedia Virginia. Ed. Sara Bearss and Brendan Wolfe. 27 Feb. 2013. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 23 Jun. 2011 <http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Billy_fl_1770s-1780s>.
First published: June 13, 2011 | Last modified: June 23, 2011