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Thomas R. Dew on the Virginia Legislative Debate following Nat Turner's Insurrection
Digital History ID 370

Author:   Thomas R. Dew


During the late eighteenth century, the South was unique among slave societies in its openness to antislavery ideas. In Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina, Quakers freed more than 1500 slaves. Scattered Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist ministers condemned slavery as a sin "contrary to the word of God."

By the 1830s, however, the South's openness to antislavery ideas had ended. State legislatures adopted laws suppressing criticism of slavery. White Southerners stopped referring to the institution as a necessary evil, and instead began to defend slavery as a positive good. By the 1840s, a new, more explicitly racist rationale for slavery had emerged.

Only once, in the wake of Nat Turner's insurrection, did a southern state openly debate the possibility of ending slavery. These debates in the Virginia legislature in January and February 1832 ended with the defeat of proposals to abolish slavery. In the following selection, Thomas R. Dew (1802-1846), an influential profesor of political economy at the College of William and Mary, discusses the legislative debate. Dew's predecessors at William and Mary, George Wythe (1726-1806) and St. George Tucker (1752-1827), had abhorred slavery.


...In our Southern slave-holding country, the question of emancipation has never been seriously discussed in any of our legislatures, until the whole subject, under the most exciting circumstances, was, during the last winter, brought up for discussion in the Virginia Legislature, and plans of partial or total abolition were earnestly pressed upon the attention of that body. It is well known, that during the last summer, in the county of Southampton in Virginia, a few slaves, led on by Nat Turner, rose in the night, and murdered in the most inhuman and shocking manner, between sixty and seventy of the unsuspecting whites of that county. The news, of course, was rapidly diffused, and with it consternation and dismay were spread throughout the State, destroying for a time all feeling of security and confidence; and even when subsequent development had proved, that the conspiracy had been originated by a fanatical Negro preacher, (whose confessions proved beyond a doubt mental aberration,) and that this conspiracy embraced but few slaves, all of whom had paid the penalty of their crimes, still the excitement remained, still the repose of the Commonwealth was disturbed,--for the ghastly horrors of the Southampton tragedy could not immediately be banished from the mind--and Rumour, too, with her thousand tongues, was busily engaged in spreading tales of disaffection, plots, insurrections, and even massacres, which frightened the timid and harassed and mortified the whole of the slave-holding population. During this period of excitement, when reason was almost banished from the mind, and the imagination was suffered to conjure up the most appalling phantom, and picture to itself a crisis in the vista of futurity, when the overwhelming numbers of the blacks would rise superior to all restraint, and involve the fairest portion of our land in universal ruin and desolation, we are not to wonder, that even in the lower part of Virginia, many should have seriously inquired, if this supposed monstrous evil could not be removed from our bosom. Some looked to the removal of the free people of colour by the efforts of the Colonization Society, as an antidote to all our ills. Some were disposed to strike at the root of the evil--to call on the General Government for aid, and by the labors of Hercules, to extirpate the curse of slavery from the land. Others again, who could not bear that Virginia should stand towards the Central Government (whose unconstitutional action she had ever been foremost to resist,) in the attitude of a suppliant, looked forward to the legislative action of the State as capable of achieving the desired result. In this state of excitement and unallayed apprehension, the Legislature met, and plans for abolition were proposed and earnestly advocated in debate.

Upon the impropriety of this debate, we beg leave to make a few observations. Any scheme of abolition proposed so soon after the Southampton tragedy, would necessarily appear to be the result of the most inhuman massacre. Suppose the Negroes, then, to be really anxious for their emancipation, no matter on what terms, would not the extraordinary effect produced on the legislature by the Southampton insurrection, in all probability, have a tendency to excite another? And we must recollect, from the nature of things, no plan of abolition could act suddenly on the whole mass of slave population in the State. Mr. Randolph's was not even to commence its operation until 1840. Waiting then, one year or more, until the excitement could be allayed and the empire of reason could once more have been established, would surely have been productive of no injurious consequences; and, in the mean time, a Legislature could have been selected which would much better have represented the views and wishes of their constituents on this vital question. Virginia could have ascertained the sentiments and wishes of other slave-holding States, whose concurrence, if not absolutely necessary, might be highly desirable, and should have been sought after and attended to, at least as a matter of State courtesy. Added to this, the texture of the Legislature was not of that character calculated to ensure the confidence of the people in a movement of this kind.... It appears...that the Legislature was composed of an unusual number of young and inexperienced members, elected in the month of April previous to the Southampton massacre, and at a time of profound tranquility and repose, when of course the people were not disposed to call from their retirement their most distinguished and experienced citizens.

Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (Richmond, 1832)

Source: Thomas R. Dew, Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (Richmond, 1832)

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