University, Court, & Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges & Courts by Alfred Brophy

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Pat Young

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University, Court, & Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges & Courts & the Coming of the Civil War by Alfred Brophy published by Oxford University Press (2016) $41.95 Hardcover $15.65 Kindle

Before 1832 there was a wide diversity of opinion in Southern academic circles about slavery. Professors and students were as likely to advocate one form or another of ending or curtailing the institution as they were to defend it. Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 led to the most strident debate over slavery in the South and to the routing of slavery’s critics.

The earliest legal scholars at William and Mary had been critics of slavery. George Wythe, regarded as the first law professor in English America, helped equip Thomas Jefferson with an anti-slavery point of view. He was succeeded after his murder by St. George Tucker who wove together existing legal precedents to support a plan for gradually ending slavery in two generations.

Turner’s revolt led to an intense debate in Virginia and the rest of the South over the future of slavery. Someone who did not know the future could be forgiven for thinking in January 1832 that the state was on the way to gradual emancipation. A sizeable portion of the legislature voted for bills that were critical of slavery. But this was not a step on the road to freedom, it was the highwater mark of the anti-slavery movement in the South.

Professor Thomas Dew of William and Mary did not follow the lead of his predecessors from the school. He responded to the Virginia debates by publishing a book supporting slavery entitled Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832. According to Brophy:

It was a book-length treatment of the history of slavery and a defense of its place in Virginia society. Dew helped end serious consideration of the viability and efficacy of termination of slavery. The Review was one of the leading pro-slavery works in the forty years leading into Civil War. The Review (also known as Dew’s Essay on Slavery) was reprinted numerous times, including in 1849 as a freestanding pamphlet and again in the 1852 volume The Pro-Slavery Argument.

Slavery, according to Dew, was “the principal means for impelling forward the civilization of mankind.” Agriculture had developed in tandem with slavery. Without slavery, whites would still be hunter-gatherers. Slavery had helped lead to the creation of government, for government’s primary purpose was to protect the sanctity of property, including property in human beings.

Dew wrote of the joy of the slave in his bondage; “we have no doubt but that [slaves] form the happiest portion of our society. A merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe, than the negro slave of the U. States.” Setting the model for many future academic opponents of abolition, Dew wrote:

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.

Brophy details the construction of a Southern academic consensus on slavery. He also demonstrates that pro-slavery opinion consolidated fairly late in pre-war history. Men who would later lead the Confederacy did not grow up in an atmosphere in which slavery was unquestioned. Instead, pro-slavery thought was crafted after the Turner revolt as armor against abolitionist criticism and potentially fatal Southern white self-doubt. Student debating societies that had once honestly discussed the problems of human bondage in the 1820s became echo chambers for the hegemony of the “blacks as property” worldview.

By the 1840s, Augustus Longstreet, uncle of the future Confederate general, emerged as an to the young apostle of slavery as theologically ordained. He served as president of Emory College and then moved on to the same position at Centenary College in Louisiana. He shepherded the split in the Methodist church over slavery, championing the creation of a pro-slavery Southern Methodist sect. In the decade before the Civil War, Longstreet served as president of the colleges that became the University of Mississippi and the University of South Carolina. By the end of the 1850s he was not just reassuring his young charges that slavery was a moral good, he was also urging them on to their deaths in a civil war that he saw over the near horizon.

Because of the length of this review, I have divided it into two parts.
 
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