Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Billy

BILLY (fl. 1770s–1780s)

Legislative Petitions, Prince William Co., n.d. [Received  June 7, 1781], Record Group 78, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Billy was an African American slave born possibly about 1754 and maybe in Richmond County, Virginia. Because he was a slave, we know very little about him, not even if he had a last name. In fact the only reason that anyone knows that Billy existed is because he took part in a court case that helped to reiterate the legal status of slaves as noncitizens. Not being classed as citizens meant that enslaved African Americans had far fewer rights than whites who were citizens. Ironically in this case, being a noncitizen actually saved Billy's life.

In 1781 Billy was owned by the estate of John Tayloe, a wealthy planter and member of the Virginia governor's Council. In May of that year Billy was arrested for fighting with the British against the Virginians. Many African Americans fought with the British, as the latter had offered freedom to slaves who fought for the Crown, yet many other African Americans fought with the Americans. Tried in a Prince William County Court, Billy was convicted by four judges out of a panel of six judges of treason and sentenced to hang. In his defense, Billy argued that he had been forcibly taken on a ship by the British and that he had not taken up arms against the Americans.

Within a week of Billy's conviction, the two dissenting judges and one of Tayloe's executors wrote to Governor Thomas Jefferson, arguing that a slave was not a citizen of the state, and therefore could not commit treason against the state. Treason is an act of disloyalty to one's nation. The judges argued 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." This trial was not the first time this argument had been made, and it was not the last time that a slave was tried for treason. In 1831 a case was dismissed in Southampton County after Nat Turner's Rebellion; the judges would not hear a treason case against a slave.

Governor Jefferson delayed Billy's execution until the end of June 1781 and on the 14th of that month, the Virginia legislature pardoned Billy. What happened to him after his release from court custody is unknown.

Suggested Reading:

Lanning, Michael L.African Americans in the Revolutionary War. New York City, New York: Citadel Press, 2000.

Kneebone, John T. et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998, 1:490–491.

Wolf, Eva Sheppard. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Related Links:

Video: Billy and James: Choices Facing African Americans during the Revolutionary War