How to Punish a Servant for Slander in Virginia

Dateline Virginia: Tuesday, August 3, 1619. The earliest colonists, borrowing their customs and laws from England, did not mess around with insubordination from the lower classes.

Modernized transcription begins:

Captain William Powell presented to the Assembly a petition to have justice against a lewd and treacherous servant of his, who by false accusation given up in writing to the Governor, sought not only to get him deposed from his government of James City and utterly (according to the proclamation) to be degraded from the place and title of a captain, but to take his life from him also. And so out of the said petition sprang this order following:

Captain William Powell presented a petition to the General Assembly against one Thomas Garnett a servant of his not only for extreme neglect of his business to the great loss and prejudice of the said captain and for openly and impudently abusing his house in sight both of Master and Mistress, through wantonness with a woman servant of theirs, a widow, but also for falsely accusing him to the Governor, both of drunkenness and theft and besides for bringing his fellow servants to testify on his wide, wherein they justly failed him.

It was thought fit by the General Assembly (the Governor himself giving sentence) that he should stand four days with his ears nailed to the pillory, viz. Wednesday, Aug 4th and so likewise Thursday, Friday, and Saturday next following, and every of those four days should be publicly whipped. Now as touching the neglect of his work what satisfaction to be made to his Master of that is referred to the Governor and Council of State.

Did the Constitutional Founders have this in mind when they wrote the Eighth Amendment? … “[N]or cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Whatever the background of the Eighth Amendment, thankfully, we have moved on from such punishments.

Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/9, ed. by H. R. McIlwaine, Classic Reprint Series (orig. Richmond: 1915), p. 12.

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