Can an enslaved person commit treason? The case of Billy
Independence made white Americans citizens of a new nation, but enslaved people did not enjoy most of the rights of citizenship. Did that mean that they could not commit treason? In 1781 the Prince William County Court tried an enslaved man named Billy for treason for attempting to escape to the British and supplying them with "aid and comfort."
Billy was tried and convicted in Prince William County on May 8, 1781. The court sentenced him to death by hanging and ordered that his head be mounted on a pole at the intersection of public roads.
Three of the justices of the peace appealed to governor Thomas Jefferson to issue a reprieve. They argued that slaves were not citizens and therefore could not commit treason. The executor of the estate of Billy's owner also petitioned the Virginia House of Delegates for Billy's pardon. On June 14, 1781, the General Assembly pardoned Billy because he was not a citizen.
What is treason?
The 1776 Virginia law defined treason as going to war against the Commonwealth of Virginia or providing its enemies with "aid and comfort" or other support. Conviction required either a confession in court or testimony by two eyewitnesses.
Why didn't Thomas Jefferson pardon Billy?
The Virginia treason act of 1776 granted the power to issue pardons in cases of treason to the General Assembly, not to the governor.
That was the law. Was it justice?