Vagrancy Laws in the 1860s Applied to


Virginia laws and practices, derived in part from English precedent, had long distinguished vagrants, or vagabonds, from poor people in general. In legislation passed in 1785
and so revised two years afterwards,
the General Assembly established local boards to discover paying work for poor people and provide minimal essential relief at public expense. Vagrants, divers as “not betaking themselves to honest occupations,” were treated differently, notwithstanding. As early equally 1748, Virginia law
had described vagrants every bit “idle and disorderly,” and a 1776 revision
authorized their arrest. Now the police prescribed apprehension and forced labor. And if a vagrant should endeavor to flee, “he or they shall exist dealt with in the same fashion as other run abroad servants.” Lawmakers worried that vagrants would go beggars or even thieves and, therefore, treated them as a threat to public safety.

At the end of the Civil State of war, white lawmakers similarly worried about the perhaps hundreds of thousands of African Americans who wandered the roads of Virginia. Many of them had just been freed from slavery, many were without homes or steady work, and many journeyed in search of relatives who had been dispersed by the slave trade. Their freedom overturned a centuries-long racial hierarchy and left many whites concerned about public rubber and, more importantly, white social and political supremacy. By recalling old definitions of vagrancy—in fact, borrowing almost verbatim the definition found in a Pennsylvania police from 1836—
the Full general Assembly constitute a convenient means of decision-making these African Americans and subjecting them to punishments for unemployment or homelessness.

Francis Harrison Pierpont

Not all white politicians considered freedpeople, in general, a nuisance. In a bulletin to the General Associates dated December four, 1865, Governor Francis H. Pierpont, a
Republican, explained that many former slaves worried that if they “remained with their old master they would be in danger of re-enslavement—hence they became roving.” Pierpont noted that “where satisfactory wages are paid,” African Americans often rendered “fair service,” merely that such situations were rare. For reasons of mutual distrust and, in many cases, ignorance of how the complimentary-labor system even worked, early attempts betwixt black and white Virginians to enter into employment contracts had failed. Agents of the Agency of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, as well every bit civil authorities in Virginia, were well aware
of the many problems that occurred, only did not adequately address them.

“To exist free, labor must exist voluntary,” Pierpont told the associates. “Every endeavour to enforce it by law, except equally a punishment for law-breaking and vagrancy, will result in failure. Idleness brings its ain punishment. Afterward the most mature consideration I accept been able to give to the bailiwick, I recollect there is very piffling positive legislation needed in regard to this class.”

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The Constabulary

On Jan 9, 1866, the House of Delegates passed the Act Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants, with the Senate of Virginia following suit half-dozen days subsequently. The law passed in both houses by voice vote, leaving no record of which delegates and senators voted for or against it. There was little or no newspaper commentary, reports of legislators’ speeches, or explanations for their votes. There is no tape of whether Pierpont supported or opposed the legislation; either mode, he did non have veto power.

The police force’southward preamble states that “at that place hath lately been a nifty increase of idle and hell-raising persons in some parts of this commonwealth,” an implicit reference to the abolition of slavery, which had displaced much of the state’s large population of African Americans. Zip comparable had happened to any observable number of white Virginians, suggesting that the police was intended to apply mainly to former slaves. The preamble declares that if the state does non act, it “will be overrun with dissolute and abandoned characters.”

As a remedy, the constabulary authorized justices of the peace and overseers of the poor to arrest vagrants and hire them out “for any term not exceeding three months” and “for the best wages that tin can be procured,” all of which were to go “for the employ of any of the vagrant or his family.” However, if whatever people and so employed should, “without sufficient cause,” run away, then the law authorized harsh penalties. The vagrants were to be returned to their employers, for whom they would work for complimentary, staying on an extra calendar month and wearing balls and bondage. If no employer would accept them, they would exist forced to work on public projects, also for free and still wearing balls and bondage. Absent any suitable public projects, vagrants would be confined to jail and be fed only bread and water.

None of the law’s various precedents included provisions for wearing a ball and chain. In this case, vagrants—specifically those who had fled forced labor and been recaptured—were treated comparably to convicted felons who were taken out to piece of work on public projects or hired to individual employers. Meanwhile, the style in which the police authorized more often than not white men to rent out generally black vagrants to private employers nigh certainly reminded freedpeople and others of the
legal practice
from slavery days: assuasive counties and cities to require complimentary African Americans who owed back taxes to exist hired out as if they were enslaved.

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Application and Legacy

General Alfred H. Terry

Only 9 days afterward the Vagrancy Act’s passage, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Virginia, Alfred H. Terry, issued a announcement forbidding civil and military officials in the state from enforcing it. Dated Jan 24, 1866, the announcement attempted to provide context to the law. Co-ordinate to Terry, white employers were conspiring to pay former slaves wages “below the real value of their labor,” and, presumably in reference to the do of
hiring out slaves, “far below the prices formerly paid to masters for labor performed past their slaves.” As a result, “wages utterly inadequate to the support of themselves and families” had become normal.

The Vagrancy Human action, Terry wrote, would only encourage artificially low wages by compelling freedmen to accept employment. And even where conspiracies to lower wages did not exist, “the temptation to form them, offered past the statute, will exist too strong to be resisted.”

“The ultimate effect of the statute,” Terry wrote, “volition be to reduce the freedmen to a status of servitude worse than that from which they have been emancipated—a status which will be slavery in all but its name.”

Terry’south conclusions prompted some white Virginians to deny that the constabulary was designed to apply only to African Americans. Perhaps to remove the taint of slave hiring from the new law, the editor of the Richmond
Daily Dispatch
wrote in an editorial,
“In fact, the law is applicable to all persons, without distinction of color. We have seen white men convicted of vagrancy nether the old law, and publicly hired out.”

Information technology is unknown whether many overseers of the poor and justices of the peace defied Terry and attempted to enforce the law or whether, if they did, the Army intervened. The police may have resulted in the arrest of some freedpeople, but its larger consequence was related to public opinion. Terry’s proclamation drew national press coverage to the situation of freedpeople in Virginia. This likely contributed to congressional sentiment that full freedom for former slaves could not be entrusted to public officials in states of the former Confederacy, where restrictive laws known as Blackness Codes were regularly being passed.

In June 1866, just five months after passage of the Vagrancy Act, Congress submitted the
Fourteenth Amendment
to the states for ratification. It granted African Americans the right to citizenship and guaranteed their rights as citizens. In March 1867, Congress placed Virginia and the other former Confederate states nether military rule to forestall civil officers from obstructing congressional Reconstruction.

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The Vagrancy Act remained on the books until 1904. Although it was amended in 1874, 1886, 1895, and 1899, information technology connected to retain the provision requiring some vagrants to wear a ball and chain. In January 1904, a new law, An Act in Relation to Vagrancy,
replaced the Vagrancy Human action, making vagrancy a misdemeanor punishable by a bail payment and adept bear for one yr.


Dec 4, 1865

Governor Francis Harrison Pierpont delivers a message to the General Associates recommending that no new legislation is needed to encourage newly freedpeople to gain employment.

January 9, 1866

The House of Delegates passes the Human action Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants, or the Vagrancy Act.

January 15, 1866

The Senate of Virginia passes the Act Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants, or the Vagrancy Act.

January 24, 1866

The U.S. Army general Alfred H. Terry bug a proclamation forbidding ceremonious and military machine officials from enforcing the Vagrancy Act of 1866.

January 27, 1866

The Richmond
Daily Dispatch
defends the Vagrancy Act of 1866, challenge that it applies to all vagrant people, not but African Americans.

January 2, 1904

The Vagrancy Human activity of 1866 is replaced past a law making vagrancy a misdemeanor punishable past bond payment and good conduct for one year.


  • Farmer-Kaiser, Mary.
    Freedwomen and the Freedmen’s Bureau: Race, Gender, and Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.
  • Kerr-Ritchie, Jeffrey R.
    Freedpeople in the Tobacco South: Virginia, 1860–1900. Chapel Hill: Academy of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Morgan, Lynda J.
    Emancipation in Virginia’s Tobacco Black Belt: 1850–1870. Athens: Academy of Georgia Press, 1992.
  • O’Brien, John Thomas.
    From Bondage to Citizenship: The Richmond Blackness Customs, 1865–1867. New York: Garland, 1990.
  • Perdue, Charles 50., Thomas Due east. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds.
    Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.
  • Rachleff, Peter J.
    Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1865–1890. Philadelphia: Temple Academy Press, 1984.
  • Shifflett, Crandall A.
    Patronage and Poverty in the Tobacco South: Louisa County, Virginia, 1860–1900. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Printing, 1982.


APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Vagrancy Act of 1866. (2022, Apr 20). In
Encyclopedia Virginia. action-of-1866.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. “Vagrancy Act of 1866”
Encyclopedia Virginia.
Virginia Humanities, (xx Apr. 2022). Web. 04 Aug. 2022

Vagrancy Laws in the 1860s Applied to