'Profound Regret' Is Warranted

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

On an autumn day in 1800, Richmond blacksmith Gabriel Prosser looked out from a hillside toward St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry lit the fuse of American revolution with his immortal cry for liberty or death. Nearby, Prosser could see the Virginia Capitol, the white-columned temple to the rights of man designed by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.

Those touchstones of America's founding ideals were very likely the last things Prosser saw from atop his rickety hillside gallows. He, too, laid down his life for the radical notion that all Americans are created equal, leading his own revolutionary struggle in the cause of liberty. It did not earn him a bust of alabaster in the pantheon of American freedom fighters. He wound up swinging from a rope instead, the price Prosser, a tobacco plantation slave, paid for spearheading a thwarted slave revolt that shook antebellum Virginia to its core.

Slavery in America began just down the James River from Richmond near Jamestown, seat of the first permanent English settlement here and the first body of representative governance in the Western Hemisphere. As a cradle of American democracy and a crucible of American slavery, Virginia was the birthplace of the country's egalitarian vision and a stage for that vision's most egregious betrayal.

Yesterday the Virginia General Assembly expressed "profound regret" for slavery and the state's role in perpetrating it, in what legislators said was the first resolution of its kind in the country. For Virginia and the nation, this is more than a collective expression of remorse. Standing on historical ground this hard, it's a political earthquake.

Four hundred years ago this May, 104 men and boys arrived from London, landing on a marshy spit of land they named for King James. Twelve years later, elected burgesses -- the distant antecedents of today's General Assembly -- first met at Jamestown, just three weeks before 20 Africans arrived in chains, the first in the English colony.

Slavery was not some alien practice awkwardly grafted onto the trunk of American liberty. It was part of the nation's inception and a cornerstone of colonial prosperity, without which the very means of American independence might never have been secured.

Throughout the 17th century, Virginia's General Assembly passed laws that tightened the noose around the necks of black people, excusing their torture, dismemberment and murder, and instituting a vicious form of racism, the remnants of which scar the republic even today.

"All persons except negroes" were to bear arms in Virginia, a 1639 militia statute decreed, ensuring white planters the early monopoly on firepower they used to repress black slaves. "If any should chance to die" under harsh and abusive treatment, a later law provided, the owner would automatically "be acquitted from molestation."

Runaways could be hunted like prey by an overseer under a 1680 statute that affirmed, "It shall be lawful for such person or persons to kill the said negro or slave so lying out and resisting."

The General Assembly completed its campaign of legislative repression with the comprehensive slave code of 1705. A horrifying glimpse into the shadows of the human soul, it relegated slaves to "real estate" and made savage dealings with blacks an accepted, routine and even mandatory pillar of colonial life.

As the Civil War began in 1861, there were 4 million slaves in America; half a million were in Virginia.

"When men are tied as slaves, all yell and cry with one voice liberty, liberty, liberty," Anglican priest and geographer Richard Hakluyt wrote in 1584. It fell to a slave named for an angel of God to unite that voice in Richmond. To Gabriel Prosser and so many more, Virginia extends her profound regret.

-- Bob Deans

Washington

The writer, a national correspondent for Cox Newspapers, is author of "The

River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James." His e-mail address isbobdeans@coxnews.com.


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