Told  /  Retrieval

“For the Purpose of Appointing Vigilance Committees:” Fearing Abolitionists in Central Virginia

Newspaper announcements from 1859 reveal how some Richmond slaveholders organized to protect the institution of slavery.

Another intriguing ad stated: “VIGILIANCE COMMITTEES.—The citizens of Hanover, Louisa, Caroline, and Spotsylvania, are invited to meet at Beaver Dam Depot, on Thursday, December 1st for the purpose of appointing VIGILANCE COMMITTEES.” Noting when this advertisement ran, just about a month and half after John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, and the date of the meeting set for the day before Brown’s execution, I suspected that historic event had something to do with what the meeting wanted citizens to be vigilant about.

However, to confirm my suspicions, I hoped I could find a report of the proceedings of the meeting. A thorough search through several future issues did not disappoint. Only four days later, December 5, 1859, the Daily Dispatch ran a column titled “Public Meeting in Hanover.” It stated that R. H. Nelson presided, and Alfred Duke served as secretary at the meeting “of intelligent and influential citizens.” The assembled group passed four resolutions:

“1. Resolved, That all classes in our community have one common interest in opposing the wicked intermeddling of abolitionists in our affairs.”

“2. Resolved, That we pledge ourselves to each other to keep a strict eye on all suspicious persons, particularly on all strangers whose business is not known to be harmless, or anyone whatever, who may express sentiments of sympathy or toleration with abolitionists either directly or indirectly.”

Yes, they were worried about a John Brown-type individual or group coming into their community and stirring up the enslaved population. And a significant population it was. Of the counties mentioned in the original advertisement, the 1860 census—made about six months following this meeting—recorded the following enslaved population information: Hanover County 55.8%, Louisa County 62.3%, Caroline County 60.6%, and Spotsylvania County 50.2%. The average population of these four counties was a 57.2% enslaved. Put another way, almost six out of every ten people in these four counties lived enslaved lives in 1860.

The third resolution set “Vigilance Committees” to be appointed in the 4th and 6th magisterial districts, who were to carry out the resolutions. Suspected person were to be brought before the chairman and two committee members, and either bring the suspect to trial, or “drive them from the neighborhood.”

The fourth resolution requested that the delegate or senator from these counties seek an amendment to the law concerning trials so that a Justice of the Peace could require a sheriff to assemble a jury for the trial “of any person brought before him on a charge of encouraging or promoting insurrection, or insubordination among the slaves; and also, to have the sentence of the jury executed without delay.”