Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood
May 10, 1862

The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry Etc.
Frank Moore, ed. Vol. 5. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1863. pp. 127-28

Doc. 31.

Slavery In Virginia.

Message of Governor Pierpoint.
Executive Chamber, May 10, 1862.

To the Senate and House of Delegates of Virginia:

Gentlemen: It becomes my duty to communicate to you the fact that two slaves have been condemned during the present year - one to be hung, the other to be transported; one in Kanawha County, the other in Accomac. The one in Kanawha County was to have been hung on the eighteenth of April last. I have postponed the day of his execution until the twentieth of June.

The law, as it stands, gives the executive of the State power only to commute the punishment from death to transportation beyond the limits of the United States, requiring the sheriff to sell the convict to the highest bidder, who shall give bond and security that the convict shall not return to the State. I intend to commute his sentence to transportation.

The one condemned in Accomac County fixes his sentence to transportation. The court, in each case, finds the present value of the slaves to be six hundred dollars, which is made the duty of the court to certify to the executive of the State, and the auditor to pay out of the public treasury.

Perhaps I should not have called these facts to the attention of the Legislature but for the fact that the Legislature has not made any provision for paying claims of this character. But, gentlemen, as this case now comes up, I deem it my duty to submit you my views on this subject, as it is not a novel one to me.

Why should the owner of a slave who commits a crime deemed of sufficient gravity, by the law, to subject the slave to transportation or death, be paid the value of the slave out of the public treasury of the State?

I have examined the Jewish, the Grecian and Roman laws on the subject of capital crimes committed by slaves; also, the laws of all the States of the United States in which slavery exists, and I find no similar provisions made for their payment as those made by the laws of Virginia. I have looked into the common law, and I find where a vicious animal, which is recognized as property, does an injury, the animal doing the injury is liable to be destroyed without compensation to the owner, but the owner is also liable for damages for knowingly permitting the vicious property to run at large. I have asked men, learned in the law, who owned slaves, to assign me a good reason, according to the principles of the common law, Scripture, moral science or common policy, why masters or their representatives owning slaves who were adjudged guilty of crimes by the law worthy of death or transportation should be paid for them. No answer has ever been given me, except that if the master was not paid he had strong temptation to screen the slave from the punishment due his crime by sending him to another State and selling him, rather than lose him by death or transportation.

This reason does great injustice to the master, for it is claimed that the existence of slavery produces a higher civilization, a more exalted state of society, where the employee and employer are identical in interest, feeling and affection, instead of the antagonism existing between such parties, by contract, where money to make and save is the object; and, furthermore, is inhuman and barbarous and against every principle of justice. The master owns his slave. He is dictator, guardian and absolute director over him, and requires submission, allegiance and obedience to his commands. The brains and ability that justifies such ownership of ignorance and creates such dependence, should defend, protect and shield it when prosecuted for a capital offence, precisely as a parent should defend his minor son, who has the same legal right to his service that the master has to the service of his slave. Yet, who ever claimed the right or advanced the idea that a parent should be indemnified for such loss, when his son's life is forfeited for crime? The inequality of social position between the son and the slave does not lessen the force of the argument, because the lower the degree of intelligence, social position and ability to procure the aids necessary to a fair trial, the more imperative is the demand for that interest and aid from another.

The justice of this law of paying the master for a slave condemned for crime to death or transportation, is totally and perfectly indefensible. The master has the physical, moral, intellectual and religious training of the slaves. All laws are made to give him the largest power over him, and if he fail to make him a good, and obedient, and law-abiding creature of him, it is the misfortune of the master. If, by his neglect, the slave grows up vicious and commits crimes, it is no reason why tens of thousands of poor laboring men in the State should contribute of their hard earnings to pay a rich master for his slave that by his own neglect in moral training has become vicious, and committed a crime worthy of death or transportation.

In the case of the slave in Kanawha County the master is rich; the man killed leaves a poor family. The wife and children are left without support, deprived of it by the slave; yet, though the master is rich, by law he is to be paid six hundred dollars for his slave, while the family, deprived of all support, is left unprovided for. This case is, perhaps, the history of thousands of cases that have occurred in the State. The whole system of paying for convict slaves has been revolting to my mind ever since I had judgment to comprehend it.

In the last twenty years there have been above six hundred thousand dollars appropriated by the Legislature to pay for convict slaves. From thirty thousand to forty thousand dollars have been annually appropriated. I think it is time the whole thing was stopped, and would recommend that you not only do not make any appropriation to pay for those that are already condemned, but that you repeal the law which allows compensation for condemned slaves. Large numbers of slaveholders have engaged in the rebellion now in progress. They are passing resolutions to burn their crops. They are taking their horses and mules to be used in the rebel army. They are not providing the means of subsistence for their slaves during the coming year, by planting crops the present season. Insubordination may arise among the slaves in different parts of the State. They may commit various crimes for which thousands of them, during the coming year, may be condemned to be hung or transported, and in this way an insupportable debt may be forced on the State.

I respectfully suggest, gentlemen, that you repeal the law above referred to.

F. H. Pierpoint.

Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood: May 1862

West Virginia Archives and History