Proslavery Political Theory in the Southern Academy, 1832–1861
Slavery is a material element of southern power and southern polity. There is no labor so profitable, none so free from pernicious influences to society, as slave labor… . [T]o rightly defend and direct it, constitutes an important duty on the part of those who form the mind and habits of our southern youth.
SUPERINTENDENT FRANCIS HENNEY SMITH,
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE, 1856
Given all the important findings on the presence of enslaved people at southern universities—that schools and faculty owned human beings, that they worked on campus, that students casually and viciously attacked enslaved people on campus, and that students’ educations were financed by profits made from slavery—it is easy to overlook the intellectual connections of southern schools to slavery. Yet southern academics generated a lengthy set of justifications of slavery. They wrote about the history of slavery, its economic benefits, its place in constitutional and political theory, and its basis in religion and “science.” They told the children of the wealthy that what the children were doing was right; and they helped propagate the belief that slavery was so central to the South that threats to it undermined the Constitution and their society. Then, as civil war threatened, some academics went to the public stage, such as pulpits and legislative halls, to urge secession. Slavery did not just sustain the southern academy; the southern academy sustained slavery.
The Academy and Slavery in the 1830s
It was a long journey to the justification of slavery. At times the academy had defended slavery in publications going back to the eighteenth century—such as William Graham’s defense at Washington College.1 Sometimes the academy attacked slavery, to be sure. In the spring of 1832, not even a year after the Nat Turner rebellion, William Gaston spoke at the University of North Carolina’s graduation and charged the graduates with dealing with slavery and ending it.2 That was not much, but it reflects the sentiments of many that something needed to be done about slavery. At Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, President Henry Ruffner spoke openly against slavery in 1847. That opposition to slavery seems to have had something to do with his departure from the school the next year.3
This detailed image of Washington College, which appeared on Washington College stationery, gives a sense of the college’s appearance shortly before the Civil War. The building in the center, Washington Hall, is where the literary societies met. Courtesy of Leyburn Library, Washington and Lee University Special Collections, Misc. Trustee Papers, box 1, folder 5.
Yet for many people in the South, doing something about slavery meant supporting it and making sure that it was protected against slave rebellion and attacks by abolitionists. Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the close connections of the academy and other institutions—northern and southern—to slavery in an 1851 address. “The learning of the Universities, the culture of the eloquent society, the acumen of lawyers, the majesty of the Bench, the eloquence of the Christian pulpit, the stoutness of Democracy, the respectability of the Whig party are all combined” in the proslavery mission of kidnapping a fugitive slave, Emerson told an audience in Concord, Massachusetts.4
The vigorous and comprehensive defense of slavery in the southern academy began when William and Mary professor Thomas Roderick Dew published an article in the September 1832 issue of the American Quarterly Review. Dew was writing ostensibly a review of the debates over the future of slavery in the Virginia legislature in the spring of 1832. Inspired by the Nat Turner rebellion, the legislature debated slavery’s necessity, its role in the southern economy and southern society, and its evils. Some in the legislature spoke of gradual abolition. Their plans were not successful or even well developed, but the debates covered many arguments against slavery, and they drew forth proslavery arguments too. Defenders of slavery said property could not be taken away, that abolition would upend Virginia society, and that the state’s economy depended on slavery. Dew synthesized the debates and added his own arguments about the economic necessity of slave labor and the profits from the sale of slaves, as well as the impracticality of the termination of slavery and colonization of formerly enslaved people. Soon the article appeared in expanded form under the title Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature.
The longest section of the Review was on the origins of slavery and its effects on civilization. Dew portrayed slavery as a humane alternative to killing humans captured in war and, thus, a step forward in civilization. Later, the labor that slaves provided led to agriculture and to yet higher states of civilization as enslaved people supported others. The protection of property (and particularly property in humans) was central to Dew’s world, for its protection allowed markets to flourish and property owners to stabilize society. It was property—particularly property in humans—more than anything else that shaped a government’s character. Slavery was, quite simply, “the principal means for impelling forward the civilization of mankind.”5
Dew’s defense of slavery was an empirically based argument. He cautioned against abstract theories of right such as “all men are born equal,” “slavery in the abstract is wrong,” and “the slave has a natural right to regain his liberty.” “No set of legislators ever have,” he thought, “or ever can, legislate upon purely abstract principles, entirely independent of circumstances, without the ruin of the body politic.”6 That focus on the particular circumstances of slavery appeared in just about all the other defenses of slavery; it set up a debate between what was practical and the world reformers dreamed about. In the process, it tried to make reforms look laughable.
Dew included a catalog of other proslavery arguments, though he did not develop them as fully as the economic argument and the argument about the impracticality of abolition and colonization. For instance, he argued that slavery supported freedom for the white community. It gave all white people a common interest and a class to labor for them. And he argued that slaves in the United States were the happiest people on earth.7 That seems to be a subtle rebuttal of David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Walker wrote that there is not a more miserable person than a slave in the United States: “We Coloured People of these United States, are, the most wretched, degraded, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began.”8
Dew then turned to the impracticality of abolition. The value of humans as property simply would not allow it. Some had proposed elaborate colonization schemes, but they were doomed to failure. Virginia’s 470,000 enslaved people were worth approximately $100 million—about one-third of the state’s wealth. Slavery was simply too important economically to contemplate its end. And if slaves were emancipated and sent away, there would be no one left to do the work of the laboring class. Dew grimly concluded, after more pages of argument, “Virginia will be a desert.”9
The Review returned to the topic of the supposed evils of slavery. Dew brought the argument back home with the suggestion that slavery was not so bad. The argument in the Review was an attempt to minimize the problem. He looked around, for instance, to Haiti, where slaves had freed themselves in the 1790s, and found horrible destruction of slave owners; but Dew also thought that freedom had not benefited the formerly enslaved: “The negroes have gained nothing by their bloody revolution.”10
For one who believed slaves happy, then, it made sense to oppose the termination of such a system that brought so much good. Why should there be abolitionist agitation? Dew asked. “Why, then, since the slave is happy, and happiness is the great object of all animated creation, should we endeavor to disturb his contentment by infusing into his mind a vain and indefinite desire for liberty—a something which he cannot comprehend, and which must inevitably dry up the very sources of his happiness.” More talk of abolition would just invite insurrection. And that led Dew to the conclusion that the case for slavery had been “almost as conclusive as the demonstrations of the mathematician … that the time for emancipation has not yet arrived, and perhaps it never will.” The United States had preserved liberty for some while still employing slavery. Dew’s final words in the Review were those of opposition to change: “Let us … learn wisdom from experience; and know that the relations of society, generated by the lapse of ages, cannot be altered in a day.”11
Other people at William and Mary took up pieces of the defense and developed it more thoroughly, particularly the arguments about slavery’s importance to politics. Dew’s William and Mary colleague Nathaniel Beverley Tucker focused on the importance of slavery to white freedom. In a lecture on William Blackstone’s discussion of slavery, Tucker argued that slavery makes freedom possible for whites; otherwise, whites could not abide universal democracy. Moreover, it kept the laboring class laboring and thus made it possible to have all white people above the slaves voting. Tucker, like Dew, made a bold statement about the utility of slavery: “It has done more to elevate a degraded race in the scale of humanity; to tame the savage; to civilize the barbarous; to soften the ferocious; to enlighten the ignorant; and to spread the blessing of Christianity among the heathen, than all the missionaries that philanthropy and religion have ever sent forth.”12 Two key proslavery arguments appeared in Tucker’s lecture. First, slaves were taken care of by their owners, while employers of free workers did not care for them. Thus, slavery was good for the slaves. Second, slavery preserved freedom for white people. While we might think that linking freedom to slavery is paradoxical, there was a long lineage to the belief that they went hand in hand. And therein lies an unusual story.
Tucker traced the lineage of slavery’s “contribution” to the idea of freedom to Edmund Burke, who was a member of Parliament during the American Revolution. Burke’s “Speech on Conciliation with the American Colonies,” which he delivered in March 1775—just before the outbreak of war in April 1775—summarized the reasons why the American colonies were so attached to the idea of liberty. Some of the reasons had to do with Americans’ heritage of liberty and with religious attitudes in the North, and others with Americans’ respect for Anglo-American law. Burke also credited the institution of slavery as another cause of Americans’ respect for liberty. Slavery in Virginia and the Carolinas led the masters there to have respect for freedom because of the benefits that slavery conferred on them.13
The Shift to the Focus on Natural Inequality
The argument about slavery’s support for white republicanism was heard right up to the Civil War. Most notably, Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina used it in his 1858 “mud sill” speech. But Hammond’s primary point was that enslaved people provided labor and thus supported the economic life of the white ruling class. Thus, Hammond embellished the argument about the political benefits of slavery from the 1830s by emphasizing the economic and social benefits of slavery.14 In the 1840s and 1850s proslavery political theory largely shifted away from talk of slavery’s service to republican government in two ways. First, there was an expansion of the argument that slavery is good for the enslaved. Second, and closely related to the first, is the idea that there is a hierarchy inherent in nature and that not all people are fit for freedom.
In 1852 Professor William Porcher Miles of the College of Charleston delivered an address to students titled Republican Government Not Everywhere and Always the Best; and Liberty Not the Birthright of Mankind. Miles mocked Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence that all people are created equal as a “monstrous and dangerous fallacy.” Instead, Miles thought that freedom “must be rooted in the nature, manners and habits, no less than the thoughts and affections, of a People.”15 This was an indictment of universal freedom and an endorsement of slavery. Two years later, in an address to the William and Mary literary societies in 1854, lawyer John Randolph Tucker spoke in similar terms of the need to calibrate the amount of freedom a people had to their social status. He replaced the Enlightenment-era understanding that all people are created equal with another formulation: some people are not fit for freedom. This was a political theory based on inequality.
The man who writes constitutions by the dozen, and keeps them on hand for use or distribution, without a careful investigation of the social capacities of the people for whom they are designed—he who guesses that our institutions would be admirably suited for China or Japan, or that our federative system of republics would work with facility and success under a President Roberts upon the coast of Africa, is a dangerous empiric—a mere pretender, whose reward should be fixed in perpetual banishment from the counsel of a wise people. And in the solitude of an asylum for political lunatics.16
University of Virginia professor Albert Taylor Bledsoe’s 1856 treatise, An Essay on Liberty and Slavery, expanded on the political theory of slavery. Bledsoe argued that because some people were only fit for slavery, a restriction on them was appropriate. Slavery for people fit best for slavery was, in Bledsoe’s mind, justified, and those restrictions on some led to greater freedom for the remaining free population. The rights of free people were not interfered with by the slaves.17 This completed the southern turn away from Jefferson; after Bledsoe, it was slavery that was the natural condition of many. Far from Jefferson’s aspiration that all people are created equal, there was the belief that people were inherently unequal and that their amount of personal autonomy should be calculated accordingly.
Similar ideas were promulgated in addresses of politicians to colleges as well. For instance, Robert Toombs, who served as a U.S. senator from Georgia from 1853 to 1861 (and then as a general in the Confederacy), defended slavery in an address given to the Few and Phi Gamma literary societies at Emory College in Oxford, Georgia, in 1853. He found that slavery gave more stability to the South than anywhere else. Slavery was responsible for the order of the world. Nevertheless, he understood that many disagreed with his assessment, so his purpose was to “vindicate the wisdom, humanity, and justice of the system, to show that the position of the African race in it, is consistent with its principles [and] advantageous to that race and society.” Then followed an investigation of history, ranging from the American colonies, where slavery was commonplace, back to ancient Egypt, where the ancient monuments “furnish evidence both of [the African’s] national identity and his social degradation before history began.” Toombs depicted Africans as suited only to slavery: “We find him then without government, or laws, or protection, without letters, or arts, or industry, without religion, or even the aspirations which would raise him to the rank of an idolator.” Toombs pointed to Haiti, the British West Indies, and Jamaica and claimed that experiments in freedom in those places similarly showed the incapacity of enslaved Africans for freedom. Yet when he turned to the American South he found that the slave population was increasing, a sign of the success of the institution. Toombs presented both a concise and a broad defense of slavery. His simple conclusion was that “the adoption of no other system under our circumstances would have exhibited the individual man (bond or free) in a higher development, or a society in a happier civilization.”18
Students seemed to learn these lessons. In their literary journal, the Virginia University Magazine, students at the University of Virginia revealed many of the same ideas as their professors, such as James Holcombe, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, and George Frederick Holmes. The magazine attacked Jefferson’s Declaration and turned to slavery’s history as demonstration that hierarchy is inherent in nature and that not everyone is suited to freedom. Slavery hung over students’ discussion of politics, history, and economics—as the author of a Virginia University Magazine article wrote, slavery “is the great problem of the nineteenth century.”19 The students wrote about history’s lessons, which showed that change is difficult and would take centuries to accomplish. In addition to their discussion of slavery’s history, they looked to other eras of history for lessons. They turned to the much-maligned feudal era to show that it produced positive benefits for society such as a respect for property, enabling English merchants to purchase their freedom from the Crown. But the emergence from feudalism took centuries—just as the termination of slavery would.
The Natural Law Argument in Favor of Slavery
This new political theory appeared in perhaps its strongest form in a lecture entitled “Is Slavery Consistent with Natural Law?” given in Petersburg in 1858 by University of Virginia professor James Holcombe.20 The lecture built on Bledsoe’s theory—and also on that of law professor Henry St. George Tucker, whose lectures argued for the consistency of slavery with natural law.21 Bledsoe claimed that the Anglo-Saxon race was entitled to freedom and that people of African descent were not and might very well never be entitled to freedom. This was in distinction to those who, like Jefferson and William Blackstone, said that slavery was inconsistent with natural law. Holcombe, a supporter of natural law, argued that the common law should protect slavery. His final argument was that because slavery is consistent with natural law, the North should tolerate slavery and stop trying to abolish it.
The pieces of this theory were put together just before the Civil War by Thomas R. R. Cobb in his 1858 book An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States. He intentionally joined history, economics, and the contemporary “science” of race to make the case for continued slavery. In fact, the first paragraph of the book begins by linking history to the cause of understanding law: “Philosophy is the handmaid, and frequently the most successful expounder of the law. History is the groundwork and only sure basis of philosophy. To understand aright, therefore, the law of Slavery, we must not be ignorant of its history.”22 Much as Dew had done nearly three decades before, Cobb synthesized the proslavery argument. The differences between those two texts illustrate how the arguments changed over time. Like Dew, Cobb dwelt on the history of slavery to show that it was nearly ubiquitous in human history and that emancipation frequently led to disastrous economic results for the community of slave-owners and sometimes disastrous demographic results. Dew and Cobb made similar points, but they also each had different points of emphasis. When Cobb wrote about enslaved people he often depicted them as childlike and thus not fit for freedom. He also claimed that they were well taken care of by their owners and thus were better off as slaves. Dew also made those arguments, but Cobb focused on slaves’ limitations and the benefits of slavery for the enslaved, while Dew focused more on the benefits of slavery for white people. Thus, the later and much longer work was more in line with the recent arguments about political theory. This shift may also reflect, perhaps, the power of the antislavery critique. Proslavery writers may have felt compelled to respond to the images of black humanity and dignity that were proving so powerful for the cause of abolition.23
The first half of Cobb’s book was devoted to an exploration of the history of slavery throughout human history, stretching from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome through the emancipation in the West Indies. It was an empirical study that drew on history, contemporary economics, and anthropological pseudoscience. Cobb relied heavily upon research by the contributors to Josiah Nott and George Gliddon’s edited volume Types of Mankind (1854) to argue that Africans had been slaves since the days of ancient Egypt. Africans had always been enslaved, so the argument in Types of Mankind went, and seemingly should be enslaved. For instance, Cobb discussed one of Gliddon’s chapters from Types of Mankind that referred to tomb inscriptions in ancient Egypt that supposedly showed enslaved Africans from thousands of years before. In fact, Types of Mankind collected data from many places, from tomb inscriptions to cranial measurements, to make a case for white supremacy and racial hierarchy. The book’s argument was that Africans were inferior, always had been, and would continue to be. Nott and Gliddon asked, “Have 3400 years, or any transplantation altered the NEGRO race?”24
The arguments of Nott and Gliddon had obvious political and legal implications. In the introduction to Types of Mankind, Nott wrote about how Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina had met with Gliddon and had seen the relevance of the book’s ideas about the “science” of racial distinctions to debates about slavery.25 Nott, Gliddon, and others who wrote about biological differences between races were providing a “scientific” justification of racial hierarchy. In this way, science was seen as justifying the political theory that some must labor for others rather than the theory that all people are equal.
This plate was designed to show supposed physical continuities over time between people in ancient Africa and people of African ancestry in the United States, as well as point out supposed physical similarities between people of African ancestry and nonhuman primates. J. C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind, Or Ethnographical Researches (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Company, 1854), 459.
Hugh A. Garland, a onetime classics professor at Hampden-Sydney College and later one of the lawyers for Dred Scott’s owner in the Missouri suit seeking Scott’s freedom, also picked up on the theory proposed by Nott and Gliddon. Garland wrote an extensive proslavery treatise. The book, which remained uncompleted at Garland’s premature death in 1854, drew explicitly from Types of Mankind and from the work of Samuel Henry Dickson, founder of the South Carolina Medical College, whose work included a pamphlet entitled Remarks on Certain Topics Connected with the General Subject of Slavery.26 From various historical and “scientific” arguments, Garland concluded, “Wherever we find the African, at whatever point in history or at whatever place on his own continent or in America, we find the same marked physical and moral traits, and the same condition of inferiority and servility.”27 Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott decision reveals the legal implications of such ideas of hierarchy. When Taney wrote that people of African descent were not citizens of the United States, he was using law to reinforce the proslavery doctrine of white supremacy. Justice Peter V. Daniel’s concurrence in Dred Scott drew in particular upon the historical arguments made popular by works like Types of Mankind: “The following are truths which a knowledge of the history of the world, and particularly of that of our own country, compels us to know—that the African negro race … has been by all the nations of Europe regarded as subjects of capture or purchase, as subjects of commerce or traffic; and that the introduction of that race into every section of this country was not as members of civil or political society, but as slaves, as property in the strictest sense of the term.”28 Ideas of “science” and hierarchy appeared in other judicial opinions, too. One particularly vicious opinion from Mississippi in 1859 denied the wishes of a slave owner who wanted to leave property to his formerly enslaved daughter (whom he had freed in Ohio). The opinion, which cited Cobb’s Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery, refused to give effect to the emancipation in Ohio. The judge, demonstrating the influence of the “science” of race that likened Africans to apes, asked what would happen if Ohio gave citizenship rights to orangutans.29
Cobb not only drew on the scientific literature of race but also contributed to it through a survey of the governors of northern states in which he inquired about free people in those states. Cobb may have modeled his survey on the research of Georgia Supreme Court Justice Ebenezer Starnes, who argued that enslaved people committed fewer crimes than free people of African descent in the North.30 Cobb used vignettes from people he knew to suggest that enslaved people were part of the family and were treated well.31 All of this aimed to show that slavery was the natural condition of people of African descent, that it was the appropriate condition of the enslaved, and that slaves and their white owners would suffer by emancipation. In essence, slavery was the natural order of things, and the law should support this natural order. Cobb thus presented the deeply conservative argument that, to borrow Alexander Pope’s phrase, “whatever is, is right.”
Cobb thus brought together just about all the strands of proslavery thought. He encapsulated the ideas about history and empiricism that led southerners to think that Enlightenment truths were unsuited to their society. This focus on specific circumstances, designed to show that reform is impracticable or impossible, is common to conservative thought. It turned adherents from the idea that there might be a better future—without slavery—to the idea that slavery was indispensable to southern society. And when there were challenges to slavery, those adherents, like Cobb, felt justified—indeed compelled—to take action to protect their society.
Justifying the Academy Because the Academy Justified Slavery
The academy was thus a generator and a disseminator of proslavery political theory. In fact, one of the key justifications of southern universities was their role in teaching students to defend slavery and in generating scholarship that defended slavery. University of Virginia law professor James Holcombe’s 1853 address to alumni justified the university in part because of its role in producing scholarship defending southern institutions. It was not just that schools taught slavery, such as William Smith’s course on the philosophy of slavery for seniors at Randolph-Macon College in Boydton, Virginia. They also generated proslavery literature. Holcombe went further and asked the alumni society for more faculty who could produce southern literature. Until “a class of native authors, Southern born and Southern bred,” arrive to explain slavery, “the rest of the world” will never understand slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been out for only a short while when Holcombe addressed the alumni, but already it disclosed “the most formidable danger which crosses our line of future march.” Holcombe spoke in apocalyptic terms: “We shall divide the public opinion of the world, break the force of its sympathy, and by pouring through the bosoms of our people the living tide of hope, strengthen their hearts for the day of trial, and cover our land and its institutions with a shield of fire.”32
Such themes were heard often at southern schools in the 1840s and 1850s. When Joseph Taylor, a lawyer and newspaper editor, spoke at the University of Alabama in 1847 he focused particular attention on the utility of the University to Alabama in defending southern values. Taylor saw southern colleges, the southern pulpit, and the southern press as the defenders of slavery:
The sons of the South are its legitimate, its reliable, and its appointed defenders; and, in the Universities of the South, they must be imbued with the skill and force in the use of the weapons of reason necessary to the high encounter to which they are called. If they be educated elsewhere, may they not imbibe the doctrines of our assailants, and thus, returning to us in the guise of friends, help to drag over the walls and into the very citadel of our domestic Troy, some fatal horse pregnant with the impediments of fanatic propagandists and unreformed reformers?33
Prime among the justifications for studying at the University of Alabama was its support for slavery. As Taylor said, “The University is useful in enabling the State to protect the peculiar rights and institutions which belong to it, as one of the Plantation States of the South.”34 The institution of slavery was essential to southern wealth, it was protected by the Constitution, and it was morally right. But the South was under attack by those who held a “misguided philanthropy.”
From Academy to Statehouse
The prevalence of these ideas in the South raises the question of which ways the arrows of influence pointed. Proslavery ideas appeared in many places—legislative halls, pulpits, courts, newspapers, and college lecture halls. Many of the arguments heard in college classrooms echoed those already appearing in the halls of Congress and in newspapers. Sometimes the colleges were the places where the ideas were put together most comprehensively, such as by Thomas Dew at William and Mary, Thomas R. R. Cobb at the Lumpkin Law School, and William R. Smith at Randolph-Macon College. Even though those arguments reflected ideas already popular outside the academy, the academy helped to unify the arguments—such as with Dew’s Review of the Debate and Cobb’s Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery—and served as a distribution point for proslavery ideas. In short, as the university generated and disseminated ideas it helped create the environment for secession.
The importance of southern academics to the proslavery cause appears in Reverend John L. Girardeau’s 1860 graduation address at the College of Charleston. He feared that the “Constitution and law of the land have lost their force and commanding authority” because so many thought that the Bible commanded antislavery action. Yet Girardeau found “the institution which [the Constitution] upholds is sanctioned by that law.” He invoked eight southern writers, four of whom were academics—Randolph-Macon’s William Smith, the University of Virginia’s Albert Taylor Bledsoe, William and Mary’s Thomas Roderick Dew, and Columbia Theological Seminary’s James Henley Thornwell—to establish the southern position on the lawfulness of slavery and its consistency with the Bible.35
Following the election of Lincoln in November 1860, academics worked along with others to make the case for a southern nation. On November 12, 1860, Cobb urged his state to take further action. Cobb’s speech was both legal and political. It proceeded from a legal question: Was Lincoln’s election unconstitutional? And it worked its way up to legal, moral, historical, and political arguments for secession. Cobb had a hard argument here, because Lincoln’s election met the requirements of the Constitution. Yet Cobb believed that the election was unconstitutional because it violated the spirit (if not the letter) of the Constitution. The election was brought about in part by African Americans, people who were not qualified to be citizens of the United States; it imposed the antislavery majority of the North on the proslavery minority of the South. Cobb portrayed the horrors of abolition: the attack upon slavery in the churches and in Congress; the distribution of abolitionist literature through the U.S. mail; the creation of the underground railroad, which assisted slaves to escape; and John Brown’s attempted slave insurrection. Cobb saw no end to the abolitionists’ efforts.
In fact, history taught him there would be no end. Here again Cobb drew on historical understanding to predict that abolitionists would never voluntarily go away. He turned to examples from ancient history to modern times and from India to Great Britain to show the power of fanaticism. Fanaticism had caused Rome to destroy Jerusalem and Mary, Queen of Scots, to kill hundreds of Protestants. Cobb cited the story that in India some believers in Vishnu threw themselves under the carriage that held an image of the god, the “Idol of the Juggernaut,” hoping to die and go to heaven. In a distinct echo of the first page of his treatise, Cobb concluded that fanatics frequently draw blood in the delusion that they were doing what God commands: “Such is the teaching of philosophy, and history, her handmaid, confirms its truth.”36 Cobb concluded with an appeal to Georgia to take the lead in secession.
In March 1861 James Holcombe, then a member of the Virginia legislature, urged that body to secede. He believed that Lincoln’s election posed grave dangers to southern slavery. He opened his speech with the image of a ship in the North Atlantic threatened by icebergs. Slavery was central to southern society, and if it was not protected, then “all we love and value may perish.” There was a threat to slavery in Lincoln’s election and, therefore, to southern society. Holcombe framed the case for secession in historical and constitutional terms during his address to the legislature. These were the terms of debate that he and others had developed and promulgated.37
Why, though, would Holcombe, who recognized those dangers to his society, opt for war? The South had so much of what it wanted. It controlled the Supreme Court. The Dred Scott decision just four years before had established the constitutional principle that slavery would be protected robustly. The decision’s implications were many. Congress could do nothing to hinder slavery in the territories, the states, or probably Washington, D.C., either. There was more wealth in human beings than in any other kind of property than land. The South had disproportionate voting power because of the Constitution’s three-fifths compromise. Even if, as many people believed, slavery would not flourish in the territories, it was solidly protected in the southern states by the Constitution and by voters. In some places in the West, slavery continued to do well. Why go to war? The short answer was that slavery was central to southern society and needed to be protected.
The institution of slavery is so indissolubly interwoven with the whole framework of society in a large portion of our State, and constitutes so immense an element of material wealth and political power to the whole Commonwealth that its subversion through the operation of any unfriendly policy on the part of the Federal Government, whether that operation is extended over a long or short period of time, would, of necessity, dry up the very fountains of the public strength, change the whole frame of our civilization and inflict a mortal wound upon our liberties.38
That is, there was a threat to slavery in Lincoln’s election and, therefore, to southern society. Holcombe framed the case for secession in constitutional terms during his address to the legislature. He had spoken in similar terms in an address to voters in his home near Charlottesville in January 1860. Holcombe explained that the South was preparing for war—was “in arms”—“because recent events have convinced the most unbelieving amongst us that there is danger to our constitutional rights in the Union, and because, to a man, people are resolved to maintain those rights.” In fact, the Constitution was central to his thinking; it structured his understanding of the crisis. He worried that the Constitution was the last protection for the South and that the new Supreme Court justices would be converted to antislavery principles. The result would be the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the invalidation of the Fugitive Slave Act. Holcombe predicted that the changes to constitutional law would come through appointments to the executive and judicial branches: “So long as Northern sentiment upon African slavery remains unaltered, the Constitution, as it stands, furnishes us no permanent security against Northern injustice. Upon the election of a Black Republican President, the Supreme Court will be the only remaining outwork of our constitutional independence; and that, if not stormed by legislation, must crumble as rapidly as human life.”39 The southern proslavery academics emphasized a series of ideas—a turn to history and to contemporary economics, as well as the centrality of property rights, to argue for slavery. Those ideas were then used to explain the southern move toward secession. Academics’ extensive writings thus help us understand how southerners themselves looked at the world and how they spoke as they moved to secession and war.
The war was brought on by the ideas of slavery and property that southern lawyers and judges—and so many others, too—believed in. In some cases, the very people who made those arguments in the academy appeared at the center of the secession movement. Some, like Thomas Cobb, went on to take up arms to defend the Confederacy. Cobb died on the battlefield at Fredericksburg in 1862. Among the many unexpected storylines of the southern academics, politicians, and jurists who developed arguments to support their proslavery world and then followed those ideas to the point of war, this one is perhaps most important. Those who went to war to preserve slavery hastened the demise of slavery and a new birth of freedom for our nation, as four million human beings who had entered the war as slaves left it as free people.
Epigraph taken from Report of the Board of Visitors and Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, July 1856 (1856), 24.
1. David W. Robson, “‘An Important Question Answered’: William Graham’s Defense of Slavery in Post-revolutionary Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 37, no. 4 (October 1980): 644–52.
2. See William Gaston, Address Delivered Before the Philanthropic and Dialectic Societies at Chapel Hill, June 20, 1832 (Raleigh, N.C.: Jos. Gales & Son, 1832), 14.
3. Alfred L. Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Proslavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 53.
4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law: Address to the Citizens of Concord, 3 May, 1851,” in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904), 11:177.
5. Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (Richmond: T. W. White, 1832), reprinted as “Professor Dew on Slavery,” in The Pro-slavery Argument: As Maintained by the Most Distinguished Writers … (Charleston: Walker, Richards & Co. 1852), 287, 312, quote at 325.
6. Ibid., 355.
7. Ibid., 459.
8. David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, 3rd ed. (Boston: David Walker, 1830), 9.
9. Review of the Debate, 356, 357–58, 365–66, 384.
10. Ibid., 440.
11. Ibid., 459–60, 467, 489, 490.
12. [Nathaniel Beverley Tucker,] “A Note to Blackstone’s Commentaries,” Southern Literary Messenger 1, no. 5 (January 1835): 227.
13. Edmund Burke, “Speech on Conciliation with the American Colonies,” paragraph 42, reprinted in Edmund Burke’s Speech on Conciliation with the American Colonies Delivered in the House of Commons March 22, 1775, ed. William I. Crane (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908), 75–76; Tucker, “Note,” 230.
14. James Henry Hammond, “Speech of Hon. James H. Hammond, of South Carolina, on the Admission of Kansas, under the Lecompton Constitution: Delivered in the Senate of the United States, March 4, 1858,” Washington, D.C., 1858, reprinted in Selections from the Letters and Speeches of the Hon. James H. Hammond, of South Carolina (New York: John F. Trow & Co., 1866).
15. William Porcher Miles, Republican Government Not Everywhere and Always the Best; and Liberty Not the Birthright of Mankind: An Address Delivered Before the Alumni Society of the College of Charleston … March 30th, 1852 (Charleston: Walker & James, 1852), 24, 26.
16. Address of John Randolph Tucker, Delivered before the Phoenix and Philomathean Societies, of William and Mary College, on the 3d of July, 1854. Pub. at the request of the two societies, 11.
17. Albert Taylor Bledsoe, An Essay on Liberty and Slavery (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1856).
18. Robert Toombs, An Oration, Delivered Before the Few and Phi Gamma Societies, of Emory College, at Oxford, Ga., July 1853 (Augusta: Chronicle & Sentinel, 1853), 810–11, 26.
19. “The Utility of Slavery Discussion,” University Literary Magazine 1, no. 1 (December 1856): 25, 30. See also “Cannibals All, Or, Slaves Without Masters,” University Literary Magazine 1, no. 5 (May 1857): 193–99; “Government a Divine Institution,” Virginia University Magazine 4, no. 6 (March 1860): 326; “The Effect of the Holy Wars upon Civilization,” University Literary Magazine 1, no. 6 (June 1857): 260; “Man’s Rights—Man’s Progress,” Virginia University Magazine 2 (October 1857): 310–14.
20. James P. Holcombe, “Is Slavery Consistent with Natural Law?” Southern Literary Messenger 27, no. 6 (December 1858): 401–21.
21. John Randolph Tucker is the son of Henry St. George Tucker, and J. Beverly Tucker is Henry St. George Tucker’s brother.
22. Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States (Philadelphia: T. & W. Johnson, 1858), xxxv.
23. See, for example, Sarah N. Roth, Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Alfred L. Brophy, “Antislavery Women and the Origins of American Jurisprudence,” Texas Law Review 94, no. 1 (November 2015): 115, 119–22.
24. Josiah Nott and George Gliddon, eds., Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1854), 256.
25. Ibid., 51, discussing Calhoun’s use of ideas of racial differences in his letter to William Rufus King of Alabama and U.S. ambassador to France at the time.
26. Samuel Henry Dickson, Remarks On Certain Topics Connected with the General Subject of Slavery (Charleston: Office Press, 1845).
27. Hugh A. Garland, “Treatise on Slavery” (ca. 1854), 2:36, Garland Family Papers, Library of Virginia. See also Alfred L. Brophy, “Slaves as Plaintiffs,” Michigan Law Review 115, no. 6 (April 2017): 895, 913 (discussing Garland’s treatise).
28. Scott v. Sanford, 57 U.S. (15 How.) 393, 475 (1857) (Daniel, concurring).
29. Mitchell v. Well, 37 Miss. 235, 260 (1859) (quoting Cobb’s An Inquiry), 264 (asking whether Mississippi would be expected to grant comity to Ohio if it granted citizenship to “the chimpanzee or the ourang-outang”).
30. Cobb, An Inquiry, cci–ccv and note 7 on cciv (referring to Ebenezer Starnes’s work, which is reprinted in an appendix to Starnes’s epistolary novel, The Slaveholder Abroad [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1860], 465–510).
31. Cobb wrote, for instance, that “on my father’s plantation an aged negro woman could call together more than one hundred of her lineal descendants. I saw this old negro dance at the wedding of her great-granddaughter. She did no work for my father for more than forty years before her death” (An Inquiry, ccxviii).
32. James P. Holcombe, Address to the Alumni of the University of Virginia (Richmond: MacFarlane and Fergusson, 1853).
33. Joseph Taylor, A Plea for the University of Alabama: An Address Delivered before the Erosophic and Philomathic Societies of the University of Alabama on Their Anniversary Occasion, August 9, 1847 (Tuscaloosa: M. D. J. Slade, 1847), 25.
34. Ibid., 23.
35. John L. Girardeau, Conscience and Civil Government: An Oration Delivered Before the Society of Alumni of the College of Charleston … March 27th, 1860 (Charleston: Evans & Cogswell, 1860).
36. Thomas Read Rootes Cobb, Substance of Remarks Made by Thomas R. R. Cobb, Esq.: In the Hall of the House of Representatives, Monday Evening, November 12, 1860 (Atlanta: John H. Seals, 1860), reprinted in Secession Debated: Georgia’s Showdown in 1860, ed. William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 5, 21.
37. Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 (Richmond: George H. Reese, 1961), 2:75.
38. Ibid., 2:76.
39. James P. Holcombe, The Election of a Black Republican President an Overt Act of Aggression on the Right of Property in Slaves (Richmond: C. H. Wynne, 1860), 12, 15.