Billy (Will the Traitor)

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Billy (Will the Traitor)

BILLY (WILL THE TRAITOR). Slave and possible rebel. As is generally the case with American slaves, little is known of the life of Billy, also known as Will or William, except for a brief moment when he entered the historical record on a charge of treason. Colonel John Tayloe of Richmond County, Virginia, claimed Billy as his property. On 2 April 1781, Billy, anxious to escape service to Tayloe, and several other slaves were arrested for planning to capture an armed ship in order to "wage war" on the state of Virginia. Billy's actual plans are unknown, but they may have involved sailing to join the British in hopes of attaining freedom. At his trial he argued that he had been forced against his will onto the ship, and no evidence was produced at the trial to indicate that he had gone willingly. The court of Prince William County, however, rejected his defense and condemned him to death on 8 May. Justices Henry Lee and William Carr dissented from this three to two decision, pointing out that since Billy enjoyed none of the rights of citizenship, and thus did not owe allegiance to Virginia, he could not be guilty of treason. In May 1781 Governor Thomas Jefferson accepted the dissenting judges' reasoning and granted a temporary reprieve, but he refused to make a final determination and asked the legislature to decide Billy's fate. A joint resolution of Virginia's house and senate on 14 June 1781 reprieved Billy from death and returned him to slavery. Nothing more is known of him.