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

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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Part II:

Brophy’s book brings a whole cast of characters that most of us are only remotely familiar with to the foreground. College professors, deans, judges, and legal scholars are the protagonists in this study of academia in the service of slavery and secession. While I learned a lot from the book, I had enough problems with University, Court, & Slave to consider putting it down several times.

After having read Brophy’s study, I am still unsure how much influence these academics had on Southern elite thought and politics. It is true that the leading Southern academics of the 1840s and 1850s took a pro-slavery line. Did their students think and act differently though from those young Southern white men who still found their educations in the North? Was it the college that molded them, or the economic interests of their fathers? I can’t answer that from what I learned inside of this book.

I also have a stylistic issue with University, Court, & Slave. The are several over-long diversions. In the middle of the book, Brophy engages in an extensive discussion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-seller was a hugely important work and the reaction to it in the South as well as the academic response it engendered are appropriate to include here. The problem is, Brophy goes on and on about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, retelling much of the novel’s plot. Just when you think you have turned the page on Stowe, Brophy gives a similar treatment to her other great novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp.

For those of you interested in intellectual history and in the relationship of the ideological framework of academic pro-slavery and the broader proto-Confederate movement, the book has a lot to offer. For everyone else, this will be less than satisfying.

Patrick Young, Esq. is Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University School of Law where he also co-directs the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the Program Director of the Central American Refugee Center and Executive Vice Chair of the New York Immigration Coalition. He is the author of the web series The Immigrants' Civil War.

This concludes the review.
 

Pat Young

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From Gilder Lehrman:

Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition today has announced the finalists for the 19th annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize, one of the most coveted awards for the study of the African American experience. Jointly sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, this annual prize of $25,000 recognizes the best book on slavery, resistance, and/or abolition published in the preceding year. The finalists are: Alfred L. Brophy for “University, Court, and Slave: Pro-slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War” (Oxford University Press); Rashauna Johnson for “Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions” (Cambridge University Press); and Manisha Sinha for “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition” (Yale University Press). The winner will be announced following the Douglass Prize Review Committee meeting in the fall, and the award will be presented at a celebration in New York City on February 22, 2018.

http://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/pdf/douglass_prize_2017_finalists_pr.pdf
 

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Here is what the Frederick Douglass Prize folks say about this book:

In “University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War,” Alfred L. Brophy presents an intellectual history of the southern elite in antebellum America. In addition to showing how a reluctant, "necessary evil" view of slavery evolved into a militant, "positive good" argument, Brophy reveals the ways academic thought expanded into the South's jurisprudence, policy, and culture. This portrait of a society driven by fear toward contorted rationalizations expands our understanding of the forces devoted to perpetuating slavery. With this viewpoint, scholars now have a stronger foundation to interpret the legal history of slavery and the intellectual underpinnings of pro- and anti-slavery thought.
 

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Here is Brophy speaking at Washington and Lee University about the arguments over slavery at Washington College (the pre-Civil War name of Washington and Lee). His research for the book led him to read quite a bit from student debates at Washington College:

 

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Gautham Rao reviews this book in The Journal of Civil War Era. 7.3 (Sept. 2017):

About eighteen pages into Alfred L. Brophy's University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War, I began to worry that the author was promising too much. According to Brophy, the book explains the intellectual foundations of proslavery thought through studies of individual thinkers and universities; the politicians who put these ideas into practice and the antislavery literary imaginary that arose in opposition; the proslavery judges such as Joseph H. Lumpkin who developed an economic rationale that expanded the salience of their doctrines; the slaves who pushed proslavery legal thought to the limits of its inhumanity; and, finally, the moral basis of secessionist ideology. The challenge Brophy sets out for himself is not simply telling these stories within the confines of a single monograph. His effort also requires a methodological flexibility--the ability to switch gears from legal history to high intellectual history and even some literary analysis. The ambition of the book is thus unmistakable.
 

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From the conclusion of the review:

Brophy's outstanding introduction is comprehensive and precise, but I would have liked a clearer analytical voice within the individual chapters themselves, as occasionally the weight of quotations and evidence eclipses their connection to the book's overall argument. This analytical lacuna also means that Brophy misses some opportunities to refine the overall argument about the overwhelmingly economic, instrumentalist motive behind southern proslavery legal thought. Regionalism is one clear example. Did Ruffin's sense of the commonweal in North Carolina comport with Thomas Cobb's sweeping communal moral sensibilities in Georgia? Washington College in Lexington, Virginia (later Washington and Lee University), and Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, may both have been on the legal "borderlands" (61), but Brophy is too quick to collapse their experiences into a single narrative without noting likely differences. Finally, it is difficult to not be convinced by Brophy's idea that capitalism fueled "proslavery sentiments" and that the market was a key rationale that justified proslavery legal thought (17). Yet was this the same market, and indeed the same capitalism, that primed the pump of northern property and contract law according to Morton J. Horwitz's Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860 (1977)--a book Brophy specifically invokes in his introduction?

These formidable questions arise because this is a commensurately formidable book. In University, Court, and Slave, Brophy has done a tremendous service to historians of law, slavery, and the early American South. This book may prove too challenging for undergraduates, but it will inevitably become a staple of graduate seminars and doctoral examinations for many years to come.
 


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