In 1772, George Mason, later famous as the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” represented a slave named Robin and eleven other enslaved plaintiffs in the General Court of Virginia, the colony’s highest court. The slaves claimed that maternal descent from an American Indian made their enslavement illegal, and Mason marshaled arguments from natural law and statutory history to support that contention. In a terse one-paragraph opinion typical of the era, the court agreed, freeing the plaintiffs and ordering their former master to pay them nominal damages.
Freedom suits were common in colonial Virginia. Although defined as property for almost all legal purposes and denied rights of citizenship, slaves could allege illegal enslavement and sue for their freedom. Courts recognized such claims throughout the slaveholding South from slavery’s seventeenth-century beginnings onward; these suits offered one of the few routes to manumission in early America.
The ordinary posture of the Robin v. Hardaway case, though, belied its extraordinary result. The court’s decision marked a watershed in the legal history of Virginian slavery; it was the first recorded holding of an Anglo-American court that maternal descent from an American Indian alone established the right to freedom. This outcome was remarkable in the context of early America, where, despite present-day conceptions that all slaves were Africans, Indian slavery was ubiquitous. Indian slaves could be found in all thirteen mainland British colonies in 1772, as well as in the French and Spanish colonies of North America. In Virginia alone, thousands of descendants of enslaved Indians toiled alongside African slaves on plantations. Robin v. Hardaway repudiated this history and deemed the previously common institution illegal in all but a few circumstances, inaugurating a line of cases that culminated in 1806. In the end, Virginia courts concluded that enslaved descendants of Native Americans were “prima facie free,” judicially abolishing Indian slavery in Virginia. This precedent spread: throughout the antebellum period, courts in Connecticut, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Tennessee all grappled with Virginia’s decisions and debated whether maternal descent from American Indians was sufficient to establish freedom.