In the 1820 Federal Census, the population of Williamson County was 20,640. Of those people, 7,047 were enslaved African-Americans - about 34% of the entire population. Only 75 free People of Color lived in the County. The Mayor of Franklin at the time of its new law regulating enslaved people was Dr. Edward P. Breathitt. He was born in Henry County VA and married Mary Pauline Eaton in Franklin in 1815. By 1820 his family was enslaving 9 other people. In 1823, when he was Franklin's mayor, he was 33 years old. When he died in 1837, his headstone described that he was, "a learned and skillful physician, an affectionate husband and father… a kind and indulgent master."
The new law stipulated that a "suitable person" (presumably a white man) should be hired to serve as watchman for two-month terms. The watchman's job was, "to watch and patrol the different streets, lanes, alleys and squares, to examine kitchens and other suspected places of resort for negro assemblies within the corporation." This was to be done every night. Of those nights, "at least three nights in each week" the watchman was to start at 9 pm and patrol for at least five hours. On the other nights, it was the watchman's discretion. The law required that on Sunday he was to "take particular care that negroes are not permitted to pass with anything for sale without written permission" from the white people who controlled them. If the watchman did "apprehend" an enslaved person trying to sell things without permission, they were to punish the enslaved person "with any number of stripes [whipping lashes] not exceeding thirty-nine." At 9 pm at night, the watchman was to "sound the trumpet" to "disperse all collections of negroes."
The law also targeted white people in an attempt to prevent them from encouraging or influencing the enslaved population. For example, they were prohibited from attempting to, "buy, sell, trade, barter or borrow" anything of value from an enslaved person without the permission of their enslaver or the person who controlled them. Additionally, free people were prohibited from selling to enslaved people (without permission of the enslaver), "any spirituous liquors, beer, cider, ale, porter, wine or any drink capable of producing intoxication." Also, free people were prohibited from permitting, "any slave or slaves disorderly to assemble at his or their house or place of residence." Anyone who violated these provisions would be fined $5 for "each and every offense."
There was also a provision of the law that stipulated that if a "negro slave" settled in the City of Franklin "under pretense of hiring his or her time" or if they occupied "any house or by any other means reside" in the City of Franklin the watchman was to "take them up" and by order of any justice of the peace they would be committed to prison. There was an exception to this rule for Black people who were "in the actual service of some free or white inhabitant of Franklin." If they were not so excepted, they were to remain in the jail until "the owner" paid a fine of $8 plus "prison charges and other costs of commitment." If any white inhabitant of Franklin attempted to enter into an agreement "contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act" they would be fined e$20 for each offense.
The law also applied to free people of color ("any free negro or mulatto") and targeted prayer services and worship. It required that if they entertained "any slave or slaves" in their home "during the Sabbath or in the night, between sunset and sunrise" they could be fined $5 "for each and every offense."
Below is the full text of Franklin's 1823 law. In 1831, Nat Turner led one of the largest slave rebellions in America in Virginia. Three years later, the City of Franklin adopted a revised Slave Watchman bill. The population of Williamson County's enslaved population continued to grow. By 1860, the last census before the Civil War, slightly more than half of the people living here were held in bondage. Dozens of men were employed as overseers on the larger farms and plantations. The entire system was designed to control, subdue, and defeat thousands of residents for no reason other than the color of their skin.
By-Laws of the Town of Franklin
An act for the regulation of slaves within the corporation of the town of Franklin and for other purposes.
Section 1. Be it enacted by the mayor and aldermen of the corporation of the town of Franklin, That there shall be elected once in every two months a suitable person to serve this corporation as watchman for the term of two months ensuing the time of his appointment who shall be allowed and paid at the expiration of his term of service by the board of Mayor and Aldermen.
Section 2. Be it enacted, That it shall be the duty of the watchman to watch and patrol the different streets, lanes, alleys and squares, to examine kitchens and other suspected places of resort for negro assemblies within the corporation, at least three nights in each week, and five hours in each night after nine o’clock and other nights at his discretion. Sunday he is to take particular care that negroes are not permitted to pass with anything for sale without written permission from their owner, overseer or other person having the control and management of such negro specifying what they have for sale. To apprehend and punish with any number of stripes not exceeding thirty-nine any slave, who shall hereafter offer anything or commodity, for sale without written permission as aforesaid. To disperse all collections of negroes on Sundays or other days or times with or without passes, to sound the trumpet at the hour of nine each night and to take an oath before some justice of the peace for the county of Williamson, faithfully to perform the several duties required of him by this act.
Section 3. Be it enacted, That no free man, trader or other free person whomsoever, shall within the corporation buy, sell, trade, barter or borrow any commodities or things whatsoever, with, to or from, any slave or servant without the written consent of the master, mistress or other person having the control and management of such slave or servant, and if any such free man trader or other free person as aforesaid shall within this corporation, buy, sell, trade, barter or borrow any commodities or things whatsoever, without the consent aforesaid, he, she or they so offending shall forfeit and pay the sum of five dollars for each and every offense to be recovered in the name and for the use of this corporation before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof.
Section 4. Be it enacted, That if any free person or persons shall sell within this corporation, any spirituous liquors, beer, cider, ale, porter, wine or any drink capable of producing intoxication, to any slave or slaves, without a permit in writing from the owner or other person having management of such slave or slaves, or for the proper use of such slave or slaves, either with or without such permit, knowing the same to be for his or her use as aforesaid, or shall permit any slave or slaves disorderly to assemble at his or their house or place of residence, every person so offending shall be fined in a sum not less than five, nor more than twenty dollars, to be recovered before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof.
Section 5. Be it enacted, That if any negro or slave shall settle within the limits of this corporation under pretense of hiring his or her time or shall occupy any house or by any other means reside therein unless in the actual service of some free or white inhabitant of this corporation every such negro slave shall by the watchman be taken up and by order of some justice of the peace be committed to prison, there to remain until the owner of such negro or slave shall pay to the treasurer of this corporation the sum of eight dollars together with prison charges and other costs of commitment.
Section 6. Be it enacted, That if any inhabitant of this corporation under pretense of hiring or by any collusive agreement with the owner of any slave or with the agent of continuance within this corporation of any such slave or slaves except in his or her actual service, contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act every person or persons shall forfeit and pay the sum of twenty dollars for each offense, to be recovered before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof, in the name and for the use of this corporation, with costs.
Section 7. Be it enacted, That if any free negro or mulatto shall entertain any slave or slaves in his, her or their house or residence during the Sabbath or in the night, between sunset and sunrise, he, she, or they so offending shall forfeit and pay the sum of five dollars for each and every offense to be recovered before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof.
Passed 9th September 1823
E. Breathitt, Mayor
E. Cameron, Recorder
This Act was published in The Independent Gazette on October 17, 1823. Many thanks to County Historian Rick Warwick for a copy.