Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 109 / Number 4
"A Slave for Every Soldier: The Strange History of Virginia's Forgotten Recruitment Act of 1 January 1781"
- L. Scott Philyaw, pp. 367–85
In 1780, after weeks of debate, the Virginia Assembly approved a new recruitment bounty: each soldier serving to
war's end in the state's Continental units would receive 300 acres of western land and one slave. As reported out of
committee, the bill would have awarded each new recruit a slave at the time of enlistment. Large planters were to fund
this bounty by giving the state one slave for every twenty they owned. After securing independence, the state was then
to reimburse these planters a predetermined fee based on the forfeited slave's age. However, during two months of
debate the House of Delegates amended the bill so that every new recruit and current enlistee serving for the duration
became eligible to receive a bounty slave, but only at the end of his enlistment when he also qualified for his 300 acres
of land. The delegates also changed the method of financing the bill to a general levy. Some delegates, at the encouragement
of Congressman James Madison, even considered recruiting slaves to serve as soldiers in return for their freedom.
But unlike their counterparts in South Carolina, Virginia legislators were unwilling to bring the issue to a vote.
Even though the bill authorizing a slave bounty ultimately did become law, it was never implemented and has largely been
forgotten. Nonetheless, it offers an intriguing glimpse into the minds of Virginia's revolutionary leaders. It outlines the relative
value of slaves based on age and gender. The debate that surrounded the bill also illustrates the complex entanglement of
revolutionary Virginians' attitudes toward property, slavery, and the price of independence.