African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

“Tithable” Laws

Marrying, maintaining a family, and fulfilling the responsibilities of land-ownership were difficult and costly propositions for all people in colonial Virginia. For African Virginians, it was a monumental achievement. Maintaining financial solvency was one of their greatest obstacles. Tithable Laws threatened peoples’ ability to stay out of debt, influenced decisions about entering into marriage and selection of marriage partners.

Enactment of Law: Negro Women Pay Tithes

March 1642/3—ACT I

This Virginia statute was the first to legally distinguish between African and English women.

Be it also enacted and confirmed That there be tenn pounds of tob'o. per poll & a bushell of corne per poll paid to the ministers within the severall parishes of the collony for all tithable persons, that is to say, as well for all youths of sixteen years of age as upwards, as also for all negro women at the age of sixteen years (Emphasis added).

(Hening, Statutes Vol. I:242)

February 1644/5—ACT VIII

This statute distinguishes all “Negroes” as “tithables.”

And because there shall be no scruple or evasion who are and who are not tithable, It is resolved by this Grand Assembly, That all negro men and women, and all other men from the age of 16 to 60 shall be adjudged tithable, (Emphasis added)

(Hening Statutes Vol I:292)

What were Tithes?

Colonists who owned land and those who “worked the ground” paid tithes to the government, an early form of income tax. Tithes were paid in tobacco and corn.

Who Paid Tithes?

While slavery was not fully codified until 1705, as early as 1629, Virginians first defined “tithables” to include masters of families, all free men and people “working the ground.” A 1642 law decreed payment of tithes by “all youths of sixteen years of age upwards” and “for all negro women at age sixteen years.” This law must have needed clarification since two years later a second; law was passed declaring all negro men and women from age 16 to 60 years were responsible for paying tithes.

What were the effects of the “Tithable laws?”

Tithable law helped erode African people’s access to freedom by increasing the cost of being free. Requiring a certain amount of production by “all negro men and women…” increased English controls over African labor.

The “Tithable” law presumed that African women worked the land, as in fact they did. However, the law excluded English women, although some of them worked the land as well. This had the effect of the laws promoting, and hastening social class differentiation among Virginians based upon nationality or ethnicity. Race was not yet a defining distinction in people’s view of the world (Deal 1993).

Declaration of African women as tithables also affected their marriage possibilities and choices. Masters of enslaved African women paid the tithes for the women. A free African woman had to pay her own tithes. If she was married, the expense fell on her husband making marriage between free Africans an expensive proposition. Forced to pay extra taxes for an African wife a free man might have found it more advantageous to marry an English or American Indian wife although the nearly equal sex ratio among Chesapeake Africans would have allowed them to find an African wife. In fact, one scholar suggests five of the 13 free African men in Northampton may have been married to English or Indian wives since the Northampton tithable lists identify some of their children as “mulattos (Deal 1993).”

In spite of the burden of labor imposed by tithe laws, the high value African men and women placed on family and kinship led them to enter into long term contracts to raise and share additional tobacco crops in order to pay for their family members’ freedom.