Whosoever shall be guilty of rape, polygamy, or sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting through the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half diameter at the least. (cite)
That was a proposal submitted to the Virginia Assembly in 1779 as the less cruel alternative to the existing law. The existing law applied death for everything from minor theft to major treason, often preceded by drawing and quartering.
Who made the proposal? Thomas Jefferson, backed by a committee of Virginia patriots tagged to revise Virginia’s laws in 1776, in light of America’s new independence from England. Along with Jefferson, the committee included George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, and Thomas Ludwell Lee.
That committee and the bills that they proposed were the framework for the tour of the Capitol Building at Colonial Williamsburg.
Williamsburg was the second capitol of Virginia, after Jamestown and before Richmond and an H-shaped brick capitol building stands at the east end of the Duke of Gloucester Street, Williamsburg’s main thoroughfare. The building there now is the third built on that spot, the first two having succumbed to that common killer of pre 20th century buildings: fire.
The first capitol was finished in 1705 and that’s the building that Colonial Williamsburg has reconstructed. It was, according to the Colonial Williamsburg website, more architecturally interesting than the second building. Using 18th century records, Colonial Williamsburg has furnished it as it might have been when it first was occupied in the early 1700s.
The scaffolding is there because they’re making repairs to the cupola.
We went into the building through the east doors and into the room where the House of Burgesses sat. Did any of us have children, the guide asked. Yes. How would we like it if we were required to leave everything to our eldest son and the rest got nothing? We wouldn’t.
That was the law of the land until Jefferson got hold of it. He was against entail and primogeniture because he wanted more people to vote, something only landowners were allowed to do at the time. Why not change the voting laws so that individuals who didn’t own land could vote? Apparently the Jefferon’s progressivism didn’t go that far. He proposed, and got, an end to entail and primogeniture.
The pictures of George III and Queen Charlotte in the Burgesses chamber (above) are copies. The originals are in the ballroom of the Governors Palace (below).
After the primogeniture discussion in the Assembly chamber, we went up the stairs to a series of meeting rooms. We settled in the center room – the one in the hyphen – to hear about religious freedom. Any Catholics in here? Yes. How would you like to be told that you would be taxed to support the Church of England, and fined every time you didn’t attend Sunday morning services at your local Anglican church? We wouldn’t.
That was the law until Jefferson changed it. Jefferson believed that “…no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief…but that all men shall be free to profess…their opinion in matters of religion….” His opinion became the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, passed by the Assembly in 1786. The statute became one of three Jefferson accomplishments that made it onto his tombstone.
Our final stop was on the first floor of the west wing, where the General Court met. The discussion there was on Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. Jefferson believed in free public schooling — for boys, girls and slaves — though not an equal amount for all. It didn’t pass but a revised version passed in 1796.
The General Court room also was where we were told about A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishment in Cases Heretofore Capitol, that included the castration/hole-in-the-nose provision. By this time, however, the guide was losing his audience. The tour of the Capitol Building at Colonial Williamsburg was all law, all the time. No decorative arts, no architecture, social history only in the context of policy development. It’s a hard core legal history lecture and 45 minutes can seem like hours if you’re not into it. My tour group was not that into it.
“Where do those doors lead?” The woman to the right of me was pointing to some double door leading onto a balcony above us.
I don’t remember the guide’s answer, but he did say that the architectural design of the interior was a guess. No one actually knew what it looked like. “Any other questions?”
I had to ask. “You mentioned that there were five men on the committee to revise Virginia law, yet everything you’ve talked about has been Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson. What about the other four? Didn’t they contribute anything to the committee?”
Two of them — Lee and Mason — were not lawyers and left the committee early on. As for the rest, “We have the most documentation from Jefferson on what he did. So we use his examples.”
The husband of the woman who had asked about the doors spoke. “So Jefferson was a liberal.” He said it in a way that you knew that in his opinion, “liberal” was not a good thing.
“You can’t put 21st century labels on 18th century people,” cautioned the guide. “Jefferson believed in public education for slaves. But he also believed in the inferiority of Blacks. Does that make him liberal or conservative?”
No response from the man or anyone else, so that ended the tour. On my way out, I think about a world where mercy was a hole cut into a nose, and progress was giving girls three years of education. Back out in the sunlight, I remind myself to be very, very thankful that I live in the here and now.