Nobody Likes an Escheat

Published:July 10, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Above is page 4 of Dixon and Nicholson’s Virginia Gazette from July 10, 1779. It contains “A PROCLAMATION” by Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson regarding a new law from the General Assembly, “An act concerning escheats and forfeitures from British subjects.” Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall explains:

Jefferson began his next anti-Loyalist law, an act confiscating all British property, with an apologetic preamble stating that he knew it was “a departure from that generosity which so honorably distinguishes the civilized nations of the present age,” but this did not stop the new wartime governor from invoking the feudal Normal Norman law of escheat and forfeiture so often applied by English monarchs against rebels.

The law of escheat, roughly, held that if a man either committed treason or died without an heir, then his property reverted to the state.

Bending English law to the needs of the new commonwealth, Jefferson simplified it. Only an inquest was now needed to establish whether a property owner was a British subject or a Virginia citizen in good standing. A ruling of “British” meant that the property was automatically forfeited to Virginia by escheat. In the words of Jefferson scholar Merrill Peterson, Jefferson’s anti-Loyalist law represented

an astounding revival of feudal practice … All the states confiscated British property and some of them were far less generous than Virginia, but there alone, ironically by the most enlightened statesman of his time, was confiscation carried out in the shadow of feudalism.

It also failed.

Of course it did. After all, nobody likes … well, you know the rest.