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The Skeleton In America’s Closet

ISSUE:  Spring 1984
Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831—1832. By Alison Goodyear Freehling. Louisiana. $32.50.

It has long been a kind of embarrassment to Americans that their great free republic was once the largest slave society in the modern world; not even Brazil counted more slaves in 1850 than the United States. The shamefacedness was evident as far back as the origins of the republic, when the Founding Fathers in writing the Constitution used the euphemism—”persons held to service or labour”—rather than “slave.” The embarrassment is also evident since then in the various efforts, and not always by Southerners only, to show that slavery was on its way out before it was finally excised by the Civil War. It was asserted, for example, that slavery was so inefficient that if abolitionists had only not agitated the subject in the decades before 1860 white Southerners would have been compelled by economic self-interest to abandon the institution without civil war. That effort at rewriting history, however, was finally put to rest by, among other things, the work of recent economic historians who have shown that rather than being economically unviable, slavery was actually so profitable that its survival for decades to come was virtually assured on economic grounds unless some force from outside the South intervened.

At other times it was argued that white Southerners—even slaveholders—did not really approve of the institution, with Thomas Jefferson being perhaps the most frequently cited though certainly not the only example of indigenous opposition to bondage. For a while, too, internal Southern opposition to slavery was argued for by citing the debates on the ending of slavery in the Virginia legislature in January 1832. And in an effort to clinch the argument that slavery was not a deeply rooted American institution at all, some people used to contend that the effort in the Virginia legislature to emancipate the slaves in 1832 had been lost by only a single vote! That particular myth was exposed some years ago by James Robert’s The Road from Monticello, where he showed that the vote was never that close on any issue and that at no time was a vote on emancipation before the legislature. The debate was only over whether or not emancipation should be discussed.

The importance of the Virginia debates, in short, does not rest on the possibility that, given a few more votes in 1832, slavery might have been abolished in that crucial state three decades before the Civil War. Alison Freehling in her new study of those debates, it is true, sometimes comes a little too close for my taste to saying just that, but in the end she is too good a historian to draw that conclusion. To do so, however, must have been tempting. At the time, Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Randolph, who was one of the leaders of the anti-slavery forces in the Virginia legislature, thought that even the negative vote would be translated ultimately into a blow against slavery. Almost elatedly he wrote his wife at the end of January 1832 that “you may rest assured that a revolution has commenced which cannot go backward.” Unfortunately, it was not a revolution; freedom for blacks never had first priority. As Freehling puts the matter in discussing Jefferson’s and the other founding fathers’ opposition to slavery, “the establishment of the new nation—of a republic for white men—was always of greater priority than the persistent, but subordinate goal of freedom for blacks.” And as she makes evident in her book, other priorities also supervened.

Although the Virginia legislature was never given a chance to vote directly on the issue of emancipation, there is no doubt that in those debates in January 1832 slavery came under severe strictures. “Slavery in Virginia is an evil,” said one representative who owned 26 slaves, “a mildew which has blighted . . .every region it has touched,” and reduced Virginia from the first of states in the Union “to the condition of a third-rate state.” The attacks, however, as the quotation reveals, almost always reflected concern for white, not black Virginians. This is not to be wondered at, though, when it is recognized that the impetus for the debates came from the frightening consequences of the slave uprising led by Nat Turner the previous August. The slaughtering of almost 60 white people within a matter of hours by the rampaging slaves had sent a shiver not only through Virginia but the whole South. Retribution was swift, massive, and often so wanton that the legislature later refused to compensate owners for slaves who had been killed without establishing their complicity in court, as required by law. Governor John Floyd called the legislature into session not only to discuss measures to prevent such a calamity in the future, but also, as he wrote in his private diary, “to have a law passed gradually abolishing slavery in this state, or at all events to begin the work by prohibiting slavery on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Floyd’s reference to the western region—today it is the state of West Virginia—offers an important clue as to why slavery could be openly discussed but was not likely to be ended by legislative act. Although Virginia contained more slaves than any other state of the Union, slaves had always been concentrated in the eastern counties. West of the Great Valley slaves constituted less than 5 percent of the population in 1830, whereas in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions they accounted for half of the population. The slaveholding regions, however, were disproportionately represented in the legislature in 1832 and therefore were in a strong position to resist any efforts by nonslaveholding Virginians to put slavery on the road to extinction. This situation, Freehling shows, was not accidental, but the result of the efforts of the delegates from the slaveholding regions in the state constitutional convention of 1829—30 to make sure that slave property would be protected.

Nothing more clearly demonstrates whites’ concern for their interests rather than for the plight of black slaves than the frequent linking, in the course of the debates, of the evils of slavery to the necessity of removing former slaves from the commonwealth. This was Jefferson and Madison’s view, just as it would be Abraham Lincoln’s view 30 years later when emancipation was actually under way. In fact, as Freehling makes clear, opponents and defenders of slavery in the debates were in remarkable agreement on ends; it was the means that divided them. All could agree, for example, that emancipation when it occurred should be gradual, for even emancipationists like Jefferson and Madison believed it would take half a century to remove slaves—and blacks— from Virginia. Defenders of slavery usually saw bondage ending in Virginia by the selling of slaves to the Deep South while opponents, like Jefferson and the westerners in general thought removal to Africa was the proper answer.

As the foregoing implies, a novel contribution of this book is to show that even the most ardent defenders of slavery, including the well-known Thomas Dew, looked ultimately to a Virginia free of slaves, principally because they were convinced that slavery was antithetical to economic growth and prosperity. “We believe that Virginia and Maryland are too far north for slave labor,” Dew admitted in his famous proslavery tract, Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature.

Almost as novel is Freehling’s courage in portraying the colonization of blacks outside the United States as a genuinely antislavery measure. Ever since William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830’s denounced the American Colonization Society and its efforts at settling former slaves and free blacks in the Society’s colony in Liberia as really a way of perpetuating slavery, colonization has been under a cloud. Yet, in the minds of many white Southerners, including national leaders such as Madison, Clay, and John Marshall, each of whom served as president of a colonization society, removal of blacks was perceived as an essential ingredient in any realistic plan for emancipation. Today such a solution seems barbarous as well as impractical, even though the colonizationists insisted upon voluntary removal. Yet many white antebellum Americans were convinced that a biracial society must result in the oppression of blacks by whites. As a result, they could further convince themselves that blacks would welcome the opportunity to leave their native land to settle among other blacks in Africa if once they were free to do so. As Freehling shows, however, that assumption was quite erroneous.

The error was clearly exposed by the aftermath of the Virginia debates. The following year, 1833, the legislature voted to appropriate $18,000 a year for five years to encourage blacks already free, but not, significantly, freed slaves, to emigrate to Africa. To genuine opponents of slavery in Virginia, the measure was a great “experiment” to show that slavery could eventually be ended by emigration. The plan was to be, as one emancipationist phrased it, “the entering wedge.” The experiment, however, failed to produce the results its proponents hoped for because free blacks refused to rise to the bait. As late as 1850 and 1853 the Virginia legislature was still appropriating substantial funds to encourage emigration, but there were few takers. Africa, after all, was unknown to virtually all blacks in America. Emigration to a strange and distant country offered few enticements, even when measured against the heavy disabilities the laws and customs in the United States placed upon free Negroes. Significantly, few white colonizationists ever thought forcible removal from the United States was permissible, though Virginia law did prescribe removal to other states for newly freed blacks. The Lynchburg Virginian, located in the slaveholding Piedmont, for example, denounced compulsory removal as “unqualified tyranny.”

If the story of the Virginia debates does not cause us to doubt the traditional view that slavery was so deeply rooted that only war could remove it, what do we learn from these highly public condemnations of slavery in the very region where it flourished? For one, that white Southerners—slaveholders as well as nonslaveholders—harbored serious reservations about, not to mention strong hostility toward their “peculiar institution.” For another, that however often some white Southerners like John C. Calhoun might have talked about the positive good of slavery, most white Southerners never got beyond the Jeffersonian position that it was, at best, a necessary evil. And finally, that contrary to what some historians have told us, Southern opposition to slavery did not end with the Virginia debates. There was no blackout, Freehling makes clear. She reports on a number of anti-slavery discussions after 1832, but, for reasons not readily apparent, she omits from her recital two prominent opponents of slavery in that state in the 1840’s: John H. Pleasants and Samuel Janney. And if she had raised her eyes from her rigorously close study of the Virginia scene, she would have been able to make an even broader case against a blackout after 1832.In 1849, for example, in Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay, perhaps the South’s most prominent opponent of slavery, fought hard, along with other well-known Kentuckians, to have the constitutional convention that year devise a plan for the ending of slavery in the state. In 1851 Clay ran for governor speaking against slavery across the state without hindrance, but he received fewer than 4,000 votes.(The tenacious attachment of Kentuckians to slavery, even though only one out of ten whites held slaves, was later measured again by the refusal of Kentucky to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment after the Civil War.)

As often happens in discussing race in the history of the United States, irony eventually surfaces. And the Virginia debates offer no exception. For they show that fear of blacks by whites was not only a source of defenses of slavery, but a source of antislavery sentiment as well. And, more important, it could be a source of opposition to slavery in those very areas where slaves were concentrated. After all, it is not surprising that western Virginia and eastern Tennessee voters might go on record in opposition to slavery, for they held few slaves themselves. And neither did they have sufficient votes or political influence to threaten seriously the institution’s survival. Only when the dangers from slavery to those whites immediately associated with the institution grabbed public attention, as with the Nat Turner revolt, was it possible to talk seriously about the evils of slavery. That pressure in the direction of emancipation, though, would last only so long as the danger that whites might be massacred by slaves was felt to be real. After 1832, however, there were no more Nat Turners, and the draining of blacks from Virginia to the expanding cotton plantations farther south reduced the ratio of blacks to whites, which in the 1820’s had seemed so threatening to whites. After the Virginia debates, the only force left to counter slavery was the ideological or Jeffersonian arguments, and they were no match for the substantial advantages whites received from maintaining social control over blacks and exploiting their labor through slavery. Thus the United States became the only slave society in the New World, with the exception of Haiti, to require a war to end slavery.


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