In a Newly Discovered Document, Governor Thomas Jefferson Appoints Judges to Try, Condemn and Execute Slaves Without Jury 

He is the man who, in the Declaration of Independence, accused King George III of tyranny "For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury." .

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In Virginia, and indeed elsewhere in the Antebellum South, slaves charged with capital offenses (which for them included crimes like theft, not just murder) were tried by county justices of the peace or commissioners in courts of "oyer and terminer" (an old British legal term for criminal matters in which judges were...

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In a Newly Discovered Document, Governor Thomas Jefferson Appoints Judges to Try, Condemn and Execute Slaves Without Jury 

He is the man who, in the Declaration of Independence, accused King George III of tyranny "For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury." .

In Virginia, and indeed elsewhere in the Antebellum South, slaves charged with capital offenses (which for them included crimes like theft, not just murder) were tried by county justices of the peace or commissioners in courts of "oyer and terminer" (an old British legal term for criminal matters in which judges were authorized to "hear and determine" the cases either on their own or with a special commission). These trials were specifically conducted without a jury in a spare legal structure that allowed for trial, verdict, and punishment, all swiftly conducted and with a minimal public exposure. In Britain, cases involving claims of treason were often heard in oyer and terminer, and in America the Salem Witch Trials were heard in oyer and terminer, so to many the term smacked of railroading defendants and avoiding juries. Judges in oyer and terminer found themselves having to rebut analogies between it and the infamous Star Chamber, where proceedings were secret and rulings often arbitrary. In Virginia, governors appointed the judges and panels of oyer and terminer in slave cases, and these appointees were almost always slaveholders. Not all slaves brought before the courts were executed, but many were and appeals from verdicts were limited to a single gubernatorial review. The United States Constitution recognized these types of tribunals as abuses and dealt with them directly. It required that trials be public, and outlawed courts of oyer and terminer and Star Chambers in Article Three, Section 2, which holds "The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury." Of course, these Constitutional privileges did not apply to slaves until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865.

The relationship between Jefferson and slavery is one of enormous paradox and seeming-contradiction, and for history, deep fascination. He owned plantations (both Monticello and others) totaling thousands of acres and owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. He was an opponent of the slave trade and disliked the effects of slavery on society, believing slavery harmful to both slave and master. He generally did not support the practice of slave masters freeing their own slaves, as he believed this made slave uprisings more likely. In the Virginia Assembly in 1769, he opposed a manumission law, and manumitted or allowed to escape from bondage only ten of his own slaves (almost all members of the Hemings family), out of over 600 he owned over the course of his life. Five of those gained freedom in his lifetime, five under the terms of his will. In 1774 he wrote, "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire…", and when he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 stated straight out, with no qualifier by color, that all men are created equal." In the era just before the Civil War broke out, Southerners spilled much rhetoric trying to explain this away. In 1784, under the Articles of Confederation, he proposed Federal legislation banning slavery in the new territories. The next year he told a French friend that for the states he had two great objects in view: "the emancipation of their slaves, and the settlement of their constitution on a firmer and more permanent basis." Right about that time he wrote on slavery, "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever…" In 1788 he declined membership in the French "Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade". In 1793 he feared a bloody slave revolt in the West Indies, and in 1801 as President, he supported a scheme to free and resettle slaves there, refusing to consider granting them land in the contiguous United States. In 1804 he refused to recognize Haiti, a new republic established by a slave rebellion, and in 1805 and 1806 enacted an arms and trade embargo against them. At that time he wrote that ending slavery was impractical, adding "I have long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us." In 1807 he signed a bill prohibiting the U.S. from participating in the international slave trade. And during the slavery crisis that resulted in the Compromise of 1820, he famously wrote "This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence." Of course, as a widower, Jefferson is now widely accepted to have engaged in a long-term relationship with slave Sally Hemings, who to make matters even more confusing was also his late wife's half-sister. He had four surviving children with her. So Jefferson's ambivalence is clear: he was in principle against slavery, felt it was wrong, and was afraid of its consequences for the country. Yet he was possibly even more afraid of the consequences of abolition. Moreover, he saw no way to end slavery, and was personally unwilling to undergo the financial and personal sacrifice that would be involved in freeing his slaves.

Jefferson's personal rise through Virginia's politics reached its apogee on June 1, 1779, when he was elected the state's second governor. When Jefferson assumed the governorship, the Revolution was ongoing and the American cause seemed to be languishing. Affairs in the South were particularly bad, and while Virginia hadn't yet been attacked by the British, it was a prime target. In January of 1781, a British army under the command of turncoat general Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia, forcing the government to flee from the new capital of Richmond. In the Spring, on May 20, Lord  Cornwallis with his substantial army joined Arnold in Virginia to expand and coordinate operations in that state. Meanwhile, Jefferson's term as governor expired on June 4, 1781, and he went home that day.

It was the responsibility of governors to appoint judges to hear oyer and terminer cases involving slaves. This law was in place when Jefferson assumed the governorship, and he did not propose changing it to afford better rights to slaves. In fact, one of the last things he did as governor was to make the following appointment. Document signed as Governor, Richmond, May 24, 1781. "The Commonwealth of Virginia, To all to whom these present letters shall come greeting: Know ye that our Governour, on recommendation from the court of the county Amherst having, with the advice of our Council of State, this day issued a commission constituting and appointing Nicholas Cabell, Patrick Rose, & Samuel Meredith – gentlemen, Justices of the Peace in and for the said County, in addition to those holding the said office, doth now also constitute and appoint the said Nicholas Cabell, Patrick Rose, & Samuel Meredith – gentlemen Commissioners of Oyer and Terminer, for the trial of Slaves in the said County, in addition to those now holding the said office, with authority to be of any Court of Oyer and Terminer to be held for the said County from time to time for the purpose of trying, condemning, and executing, or otherwise punishing or acquitting, any slave committing a capital crime within the said County, of which court one of the said Commissioners heretofore appointed and now holding the said office shall be one. In Testimony whereof these our Letters are made patent. Witness Thomas Jefferson, Esq.; our said Governour at Richmond on the 24th day of March in the year of our Lord 1781." All of the men appointed were very prominent citizens. Samuel Meredith was an officer in the Revolution, large landowner, and Patrick Henry's brother-in-law: Nicholas Cabell was an officer in the Revolution, large landowner, and member of the Virginia Assembly; and Patrick Rose was a large landholder and owner of a profitable mill and canal. His son Hugh was an officer in the Revolution and member of the Virginia Assembly. The document has been professionally conserved and has some restoration at the right edge.

Did Jefferson sign many documents like this? Was he the only Virginia governor to do so? Given that there are some printed references to such documents (though none that cite Jefferson as the governor signing), how about originals? We find that in 1913, Goodspeeds Bookshop in Boston had one signed by Gov. Benjamin Harrison. Its location is now unknown. There is also one by Harrison in the Gilder-Lehrman Museum and another in the Virginia Historical Society; and there is one signed by Gov. Patrick Henry in the Library of Congress. Plus there are a few issued by Virginia colonial governors prior to the Revolution. As for one signed by Jefferson, nothing. Even indexes of the Virginia Historical Society, Virginia State Library, and a database going back over forty years show nothing further. Aside from those mentioned above, we have never seen one in our decades in the field. No other document like this signed by Jefferson seems to have survived in any venue, at least in a way that can be discovered by a search. Because this is also the case with Patrick Henry, the existence of one surviving original may be coincidental. On the other hand, it might indicate Jefferson's reluctance to sign such documents. Its significance in this regard remains for historians to debate.

Very few letters and documents signed by Thomas Jefferson relating to slaves and slavery remain in private hands and reach the public marketplace. Of the few that do, they are generally lists of slaves, remarks relating to hiring slaves or providing them with necessities (like one letter about buying fish for them), or mentions of slavery in passing. A search shows perhaps a half-dozen significant ones over the past 40 years. Yet the interest in this subject is extraordinary. A Jefferson letter to historian Jared Sparks about slavery and detailing his idea for compensated emancipation sold for over $600,000 a decade ago. Though this document be a signed form, yet it directly relates to human rights, slavery, the U.S. Constitution, and issues with which Jefferson directly dealt in the Declaration of Independence.

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