J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

“No one could find the law in question”

Last month at Stolen Relations Zoe Zimmerman wrote about a legal case in Virginia tried in 1807 that hinged on the preservation or loss of historic documents.

A man named Pallas sought his freedom in court, invoking his descent from an indigenous woman named Beth. She came into Virginia as a slave in 1703. The question was whether she became free at that moment because the colony’s laws forbade indigenous enslavement. If so, her descendants born after that year were also free.

The problem was that no one was sure about the colony’s laws, and the slave-owning elite always got the benefit of the doubt in their courts. Zimmerman wrote:

Because legal records were poorly maintained, no one really knew exactly when Indigenous enslavement had been outlawed in Virginia. Pallas’ attorneys supposed that it was in 1691, but the opposing counsel denied that. Neither side could be proven right, though, because no one could find the law in question.
Pallas appealed to the state’s highest court, joined by five other descendants of Beth.
At the trial, Pallas’ attorney, the prominent Virginia lawyer George K. Taylor, finally produced evidence of the 1691 act. In order to find it, Taylor had traveled to Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, to procure a manuscript version of the act.

Nevertheless, the court still doubted the law’s authenticity and went as far as to analyze the handwriting in order to figure out if it had ever been officially enacted. It was not until the following year that yet another copy of the same law, also from 1691, would be discovered. At that point, the court determined that it would be too much of a coincidence to find two fraudulent acts from the same year, and thus finally ruled that the 1691 act was legitimate.
Pallas and his relations won their freedom.

However, Zimmerman closed with a note about a “horrible irony”: this law had been cited in another case “just a few decades prior.” The system had conveniently forgotten that precedent as well.

George Keith Taylor (1769–1815) was one of the Federalist judges President John Adams appointed in 1801 after losing the election to Jefferson. The new Jeffersonian Congress then eliminated the new circuit court Taylor sat on, sending him back into private practice.

In 1796, Taylor had formally proposed St. George Tucker’s plan for a very gradual emancipation of slaves in Virginia to the state legislature. Not only did the legislators vote against the idea, some voted against even considering it.

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