Bonded Labor and the Cabell Family

Just as the Cabells shared full measure in the most glorious chapters of eighteenth-century Virginia–championing the cause of independence, building new churches and communities, etc.–they shared in the most shameful chapters as well. Over half of white Virginians, including Cabells, owned slaves in the first part of the eighteenth century. Virginians imported from Africa or the Caribbean an average of 1,000+ slaves per year between 1700 and 1740, with widely varying import levels for the next thirty years. Men and women of African descent in the Commonwealth maintained a high rate of natural increase, so the colony’s enslaved population grew without importation by as early as 1740. In recognition of this reality, Virginia Burgesses shut off the international slave trade from their shores in 1772.

Until the American Revolution, all of Britain’s colonies in North America sanctioned slavery. Inspired at least in part by the natural rights rhetoric of the movement for independence, citizens of most states north of Maryland enacted some scheme of gradual or immediate emancipation following the patriots’ victory. Virginians passed provisions making it easier for owners to manumit slaves but did not embrace the idea of liberation for black Americans. One Richmond-area slave, Gabriel Prosser, planned a revolt against the hardening slave system in 1800, though slave informants and torrential rains foiled his schemes. In the wake of Prosser’s rebellion and, especially, Nat Turner’s 1831 insurrection, Virginia whites worried more about protecting themselves from their slaves than ending slavery.

Even though Virginia became a slave exporter by the 1810s, shipping men and women to new cotton fields in the west and lower south, tens of thousands of Virginians remained slaveowners, Cabells among them. These men and women were keenly aware not only of the benefits that could accrue from slaveownership but also of the challenges inherent in managing bonded laborers. In 1814, Joseph C. Cabell personally realized difficulties when over forty of the slaves he inherited through his wife fled to the British during the War of 1812 (*Incidentally, one of these slaves, Spencer Philips, eventually joined the British Royal Marines). Indeed, questions of slave management made up one of the primary topics of correspondence between Cabells in the nineteenth century. William H. Cabell wrote on 22 October 1820 to his brother Joseph C. Cabell about the disposition of slaves whom he inherited and who were spread out over several properties.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the issue of slaveholding became increasingly politicized. A few white and black abolitionists critiqued the institution on moral grounds, and many more white Northerners protested the spread of slavery into territories which they wanted for white settlers only. Southerners, including many Cabells, resisted the right of the federal government to legislate on the issue and became increasingly defensive in the face of abolitionist criticism. Despite the valiant efforts of men such as William Cabell Rives to hold the nation together, South Carolinians voted to secede upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, who had pledged to use the law to prevent the spread of slavery. Over one hundred Cabells served in the Confederate Army in the resulting civil war.

Other Sources Consulted:
Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone (1998)
David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975)
Walter Minchinton, Celia King, and Peter White, Virginia Slave-Trade Statistics (1984),
Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (1975)
John McNish Weiss, The Merikens (2002 edition)