One of the unintended consequences of Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831 was the circulation in Augusta County of a petition that has been called a “high water mark for direct female political action in antebellum Virginia.” This petition, submitted to the Virginia House of Delegates on January 19, 1832, bears the signatures of 215 women from Augusta County, and requested the initiation of a plan to end slavery and to provide for sending freed African Americans to Africa.
The petition is notable because it demonstrates political activity by women, but a man, Charles Augustus Stuart, of Greenbrier County (now in West Virginia), with the support of John Hartwell Cocke, wrote the petition in November 1831. Cocke, from Fluvanna County, was an outspoken opponent of slavery and the senior vice president of the American Colonization Society. Elizabeth Stuart, wife of Charles Stuart, was the first woman to sign the petition, and she circulated it among the women of Augusta County, where the Stuarts had family ties.
Turner's Rebellion left white Virginians and other southerners with a fear of more slave revolts, and as the petition from the women of Augusta County demonstrated, much discussion took place on how to abolish slavery in Virginia, reduce its importance, and reduce or eliminate the free black population. The distinctiveness of this petition is based on the gender of its signers and the reasoning it uses. It contains language that adhered to the acceptable gender roles of the time. The women were the leaders of the “domestic sphere,” meaning the home, and it was their responsibility to run the household and raise children. By contrast, men belonged to the “public sphere” of business and politics. Acknowledging these differences, the petition appeals to the men of the legislature as the “protectors of our persons” possessing “manly reason” and “more matured wisdom.” Citing their fear of “the bloody monster” (in this case, the looming possibility of another slave rebellion) the petition calls for an end to slavery. In addressing the labor vacuum that would be created by the proposed emancipation, the documents note that the prospects of additional work “have no terrors for us.” The Augusta petition and the further encouragements by John Cocke resulted in other memorials on the same subject. Virginia Cary of Fluvanna County, a noted author of advice books for women, wrote a petition in November 1831 that, while not submitted to the Virginia General Assembly, was published in the Richmond Constitutional Whig.
Despite the boldness demonstrated by the women of Augusta County, the House of Delegates took no action. The legislators debated the future of slavery in Virginia but ultimately could not muster support for any plan for emancipation, and instead passed new legislation to crack down on the few liberties afforded to African Americans, both free and enslaved alike, within the state.
1. Who was Nat Turner?
2. What was the domestic sphere?
3. What was the goal of this petition?
1. Why do you think slavery became more oppressive rather than ending as these women advocated? How does this petition, which asks for abolition, differ from the traditional antislavery arguments?
The petition in the Library of Virginia's collection bears the signatures of 215 women. Because of a contemporary reference in the Richmond Enquirer on February 4, 1832, noting 343 signatures, it is probable that other copies of the petition with additional signatures have been lost.
Breen, Patrick H. “The Female Antislavery Petition Campaign of 1831–1832.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 110 (2002): 377–398.
Bogin, Ruth, and Jean Fagan Yellin. The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women's Political Culture in Antebellum America. Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin and John C. Van Horne. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1994.