The Trial of Abigail Briggs
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By the middle of the eighteenth century, colonial Virginians had developed a legal system that reflected both the authority of the British Crown and the development of local self-government. The courts enforced English common law, statutory law, and the criminal code. Punishments for crimes were swift and often physical. Although all Virginians accused of a crime had the opportunity to speak in court, there were no court-appointed lawyers and the enslaved could not speak against a white person.
The General Court, consisting of the royal governor and twelve councilors (members of the Council, or upper house of the legislature) convened in April and October. This court met at the Capitol and heard both civil and criminal cases. When necessary, in June and December, the councilors formed the Court of Oyer and Terminer to review additional criminal cases.
Two class periods
As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:
- Define eighteenth-century legal terms
- Depict an eighteenth-century case through role-play
- Explain the justice system in eighteenth-century Virginia
Setting the Stage
Ask students if they have ever witnessed a trial (on TV or in a court). Be aware this may be sensitive for some students. Discuss with students the operation of your state court system.
Tell students they are going to review an eighteenth-century murder trial which took place at the General Court in Williamsburg in the year 1765. Before proceeding to the case, discuss with students the Eighteenth-Century Legal Terms. Have students compare these definitions with twentieth-century definitions.
Select students to portray the following: Abigail Briggs, Governor Fauquier, the Attorney General, 12 justices [if there are not enough students in the class, only five justices are necessary], 12 members of the jury and several character witnesses [optional].
Inform the students that Abigail Briggs is a Native American who is described as a quiet woman. She is accused of murdering an old African-American slave who is described as being quarrelsome. The crime took place in her mistress's kitchen which had a stone floor. Several witnesses heard a quarrel. When the mistress arrived she saw the slave lying dead. Apparently Abigail knocked him on the head with a wooden pestle used for grinding corn. Abigail said she was defending herself against assault. It was not clear whether his skull was fractured by the blow or the fall.
Ask the class how Abigail should plead (guilty or not guilty). What will be her defense? She is a poor servant and does not have enough money to hire an attorney. How will the Attorney General present the case to the jury? What questions will the justices ask Abigail? What verdict will the jury render? What will the governor think about all of this? Record answers on a flip chart or chalk board.
When all understand their role, have the students reenact the trial of Abigail Briggs. Tell students the trial does not have to go the way the class planned it out, but that new evidence can be introduced as needed and the jury can vote however they feel. Ask the Justices to sit in the front of the class with the governor in the middle. The Jury should sit to the right of the justices facing sideways. The Attorney General should sit at a table in front of the justices. Abigail should stand in front of the justices. Witnesses will stand when called to testify.
After the reenactment, have students compare the outcome with the notes on the flip chart or chalk board. Ask them how they might change the reenactment if they were to do it again.
Inform the students that in 1765, the jury found Abigail Briggs guilty of murder and the justices sentenced her to be executed by hanging. Ask the students if they believe this was a fair verdict. Why or why not? Tell the students that the Governor did not think it was a fair verdict, but he did not have the authority to pardon Abigail. The only person who could pardon Abigail was the King of England. If you were the Governor, what would you do in this case?
Give each student a copy of the Official Papers of Francis Fauquier. Ask the class to determine from these official papers why the Governor thought the jury found her guilty of murder? What crime did the governor think she had committed? What did the Governor do in this case? What was the decision of the King?
Have each student write an article about the Abigail Briggs trial for the Virginia Gazette. The article should answer the questions who, what when, where and why.