This post is about reparations for slavery, even if not the kind we hear about now and then. This is about the claims made by slave-owners in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion for slaves killed during the rebellion and in its immediate aftermath. Herein lies a window into public constitutional ideas and jurisprudence in Virginia slave society in the 1830s. For these are appeals by property owners who lost an important and valuable property, but who had no legal claim, to the Virginia legislature to make them whole.
The petitions speaks in an oblique way to the important question of just how much legislatures respected private property rights. The question of antebellum respect for property rights has been addressed by legal historians with a rather diverse set of views from Dan Hamilton (whose Limits of Sovereignty found a robust protection of property emerging around the time of Civil War), to Jim Ely (whose The Guardian of Every Other Right locates those values much further back, at least at the time of Revolution), to Bill Novak (whose The People's Welfare found a strong spirit of regulation of property for the public good in the pre-Civil War era). Hamilton, Ely, and Novak all deal with issues of regulation by the government of property, not the destruction of property by non-government actors.
There were petitions from six slaveowners for ten humans killed during the rebellion and its immediate aftermath. One, for a slave named Alfred, is I think the person for whom Blackhead Signpost Road is named. Alfred's owner's petition detailed that the Greensville Dragoons who found him “deemed that his immediate execution would operate as a beneficial example to the other insurgents—many of whom were still in arms and unsubdued.”
But what really interests me are the appeals the petitioners made to the legislature. Several appealed to the general sense of justice and property:
The people of Virginia have at all times been renowned for a generous sympathy with individual suffering and he feels assured that there is not a man among them who would not rather impose a small tax upon himself than that an innocent person should suffer such a heavy loss of property.
The petitions then turned to history, arguing that such compensation was well-established policy of the state. They referred to the legislature’s ancient practice, stretching back to the seventeenth century, of compensating slave owners whose slaves were killed by the sheriff, to make the case for compensation. Moreover, it made no sense to hold the slaveowner liable for the acts of rebellion or to expect the slaveowner to look to the people who killed the slave for compensation. For no jury “would award damages against persons that they might think were acting under a sense of duty and with a view to the public safety.”
In the end, none of the petitions were granted. The Virginia legislature left people who had lost property to bear the losses themselves -- which in some ways reflects an extreme of classical liberalism. Property rights might be respected scrupulously from infringement by the legislature, but there would be no spreading of risk among all the state's taxpayers.
Want to hear more about this? I have a draft of my paper on "the Nat Turner trials" up on ssrn.