Legislating Slavery in Virginia: Understanding William Henry Roane

Having ancestors who were state and national representatives is a blessing. The main blessing is that their lives were so well documented. Another is the fact that their speeches have been preserved.

If eyes are the windows to the soul, then words can certainly be windows to the inner workings of a person’s mind. And my political ancestors left a wealth of words. I know, I’ve been reading them and studying them. Indeed, I’m only a quarter of the way through reading speeches and correspondence left by my 6x great grandfather, Patrick Henry, one of the luminaries of the American Revolution and Governor of Virginia.

image of William Henry Roane
William Henry Roane

However, the focus of this post is on his grandson, my 4x great grandfather, William Henry Roane (17 Sep 1787 – 11 May 1845); the well respected, well-regarded state politician from Virginia’s Brahmin class. A quick note: William Roane served in the Virginia House of Delegates, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate.

I’d uncovered some interesting facts about William Henry Roane long before I discovered he was my 4x great grandfather. These facts came to light when I was researching the story of Rachel Findley’s 50 year legal struggle to free herself from an illegal enslavement (https://genealogyadventures.net/2014/04/15/battle-for-freedom-the-findley-family-of-virginia/ ).

I’d read that William Henry Roane, who represented Hanover County in the Virginia Assembly, had introduced two pieces of legislation to that assembly in the early 1830s. Both featured expelling all free persons of colour from Virginia and the gradual reduction of slaves from that state. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Naturally, once I discovered I was one of his direct descendants, I wanted to read those bills.

Let me put William into an overall Roane family context. Collectively, the Roanes were large landowners and large slaveholders who sat at the apex of Virginia society. Relations between male Roanes and female slaves were not unusual. One of the most infamous divorce cases in early Virginian history had Newman Roane (a cousin once removed from William), installing his enslaved mistress as the lady of the house, with command over his wife (Newman Brockenbrough Roane: a historic & unconventional divorce in 19th Century Virginia: https://genealogyadventures.net/2011/04/18/newman-brockenbrough-roane-a-historic-unconventional-divorce-in-19th-century-virginia/ ). Newman had scandalized and so offended Virginian society that they made an example of him.  Newman Roane’s brother, John, married a free woman of colour. The Roanes of King & Queen County listed the births and deaths of their ‘coloured family members’ in their family bible. The list goes on from there.

So I kind of had high hopes for William. What were his thoughts about his own child, George Henry Roane, when he stood before the Virginia Assembly to introduce his two bills? Motivations, it would seem, are hard to ferret out in his case.

William was young when he fathered George. He was 15 or 16 at the time. Which probably means that George – or certainly George’s mother – was owned by William’s father. I have no idea if this made what came next easier or more difficult for William.

He introduced the more famous, or at least more widely covered bills, on 14 December 1832. This wasn’t too long after the Nat Turner slave rebellion. The number of blacks and mulattos in Virginia – both enslaved and free – far outnumbered the number of whites in Virginia. So white Virginians were nervous. Did William use the zeitgeist at that moment to in a bid to free his son without arousing suspicion or attention? I don’t know. Was his appearance as a staunch defender of slavery a smokescreen? Again, I don’t know. I keep reading and re-reading his speech and it simply doesn’t offer up any clues.

Here are some key quotes from William, taken from his speech (taken from the book  Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South by Lacy K Ford)

“I will speak in favor of eternal, unlimited, and irretrievable slavery”. (Page 123)

Note: The capitalized and italicized words below are as they appear in the original text. They have not been added by me:

I know not, Sir [Assembly Speaker], what are the wishes or opinions of my constituents are on this subject. They do not, they would not, tell me – they shall now know mine. I lay it down as a postulatum, that free white people, free blacks, and slave blacks cannot and ought not to constitute one and the same society. The reasons why they should not, are so obvious and well understood, that it would be but a waste of time to recite them. As a member of the Committee to whom this whole subject was referred, I contributed my humble [might] towards the formation of a scheme to be presented to the House for removing, in the first, all free blacks from the Commonwealth, till the ratio of population between them and the whites attains, at least, that equilibrium, which, in all future time, will give every white man in the State that certain assurance that this is his country; which every slave-holder should feel, and ever shall feel, as far as I am concerned that his SLAVE IS HIS OWN PROPERTY. I will, to accomplish this great and desirable, and I believe, feasible object of a gradual diminution of the present excess of blacks over the whites, go as far as he who goes farthest – keeping steadily and in sacred view the right of property, which their masters have in them. (Page 123)

Just remember, my 4x great grandfather stood before his peers in the Virginia Assembly and said these things.

I’m pretty well schooled on the theatre of politics. And the nature of politics hasn’t changed a whit since William’s day. So I’m left with the question: did he articulate his genuine beliefs? Was this political theatre? Or , was it a kind of performance art – a smokescreen to hide a more personal purpose – a convenient way to remove his son, grandchildren and other slaves with Roane blood from Virginia en masse?

I honestly don’t know. And again, I keep coming back to the fact that when he delivered this speech he was the father of a slave, the grandfather of slaves and the cousin and uncle to numerous other slaves. And he knew this. And still, I can’t decide between political theatre or genuine belief or personal motive.

William walked a very, very, very fine line. The rhetoric, if I can call it that, not so subtly reminds his peers that he is one of them. He is a slave-holder. He is a large slave-holder. He, personally, doesn’t want to deprive his peers of property. He wants to be seen to argue for the greater good of white Virginians. That greater good required a sacrifice. It required the reduction in the number of slaves. I think he had his own black descendants and those from the wider family firmly in mind. It would have been an effective means of removing an embarrassment.

Whatever his motivations, Virginia’s history shows it didn’t work out that way.

What happened to his son, my 3x great grandfather George Henry Roane, is interesting in light of this context. Or rather what didn’t happen to him is interesting. He was not freed by his father or his grandfather Spencer Roane, who was his more likely owner. Instead, at some point early in his life, George was sold to Edmund Christian of Henrico County, VA. George and his family would come to be owned by Edmund Christian’s daughter, Edmonia Christian, and her husband, John Warren.

I know what I want to say at this point. But the entire subject is so (rightfully) charged and emotive; it makes it easy for my meaning to be misconstrued. It’s more than a bit of a landmine. I’ll try. All things about slavery being considered (and yes, you can say with all of its ills, inhumanity, moral evils and injustices) it would seem that great care was taken when choosing a family for George to be owned by. Now that’s one hell of a notion to think, much less write. I’ve put it this way because there is every evidence that his father and/or grandfather wanted George to be owned by a certain kind of person. Kindly? Considerate? Humane? Liberal? I honestly don’t know what word to use.

George (and later his own family) had close family ties with the Christian family. Edmund Christian left George money in his will. George and his wife named about half of their children after Christian family members (others were named after Roanes). What I really mean is this: whether it was Spencer or William who sold him, George wasn’t sold to just anybody. He could have been. He so easily could have been. But he wasn’t. Who he was sold to was a considered choice.

Why not simply free him? Existing laws in Virginia around freed slaves might have had a role to play. In Virginia, slaves freed after May 1806 were required to leave the state within one year or face re-enslavement. Perhaps his father or grandfather chose not to free him due to this. If they had chosen to not keep George within the sphere of the family, this would be a strong probability. Perhaps, by placing George within the sphere of the Christian family, they may have felt they could still keep an eye on him – but at a distance. Perhaps neither felt comfortable owning a direct blood relation. William’s father Spencer Roane certainly had his own misgivings about slavery. Spencer ceased being a slave-owner when he moved to Tennessee and became its Governor.

Yet, if either of William’s bills had been ratified by Virginia, George would have likely been freed and been forced to leave the state with his family. Either way, why not free him and let him leave? And it’s back to square one. What was William thinking?

So when I re-read the speeches given by William, I have this firmly in the back of mind. And the jury is still out. William Henry Roane began as an enigma for me. He remains one.

You can read the full text of that speech here (be warned, it is a political speech…which means it’s looong!):

Ford, Lacy K. 2009. Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South https://books.google.com/books?id=my2UTq1RtUkC&pg=PA121&dq=PA121&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false

More about the subject of William Roane and these speeches can be read in this book:

Dunn, Susan. 2008. Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia https://books.google.com/books?id=6MCwsycfODEC&pg=PA51&dq=william+henry+roane+voice&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ZkbeVPbFFIHAgwTyuoDICg&ved=0CDQQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=william%20henry%20roane%20voice&f=false

William Henry’s Roane brief bio can be accessed via Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Roane

5 thoughts on “Legislating Slavery in Virginia: Understanding William Henry Roane

  1. Thanks “Cuz”, I have been enjoyong your posts. well written. next stop a book, maybe? lol.

    1. Thank you. William has been one of more intriguing ancestors to research. Trying to get under the skin of someone who lived in a dramatically different society and social structure has certainly had its share of challenges.

      1. I imagine so! I have been shocked in my family history research to see how most of them came from the same towns in Europe and how little diversity in any way there was. I had no idea they were so stuck in one place, I guess. My results are so different from yours, needless to say.

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