Thomas Roderick Dew was born on December 5, 1802, in King and Queen County, and was the son of Thomas Dew, a wealthy planter, and Lucy Gatewood Dew. He attended a local private school, where he earned a reputation as a promising scholar, and in October 1818 entered the College of William and Mary. Dew’s professors praised his coursework and conduct, and he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree on July 4, 1820. Under the tutelage of John Augustine Smith, president of the college, Dew received a master of arts degree on July 5, 1824. Several months later he embarked for Europe, hoping that travel would ease a recently diagnosed pulmonary ailment. His health stabilized, Dew returned to Virginia during the summer of 1826 and may have begun to study law. On October 16 of that year he was appointed to the newly established professorship of political law at William and Mary.
Dew taught classes in metaphysics and political economy, and in 1827 he began to teach a half-time course covering ancient and modern history. Striving to move beyond the recitation of facts and to focus on philosophical questions attending the study of the past, he guided his students through such topics as the nature of power, the rise of urbanization, and the evolution of Christian worship. A compilation of his history lectures was published posthumously as A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of the Ancient and Modern Nations (1853). Widely adopted as a textbook, it went through additional printings. Dew’s talent as a lecturer ensured his popularity with students, though William and Mary suffered during the early decades of the nineteenth century from a shrinking enrollment and the absence of core classes from its curriculum.
Dew sought to influence public policy by disseminating his views on the economic issues that dominated state and national politics. At a meeting about state-funded transportation improvements held in Williamsburg in June 1828, Dew chaired the committee that prepared a published report arguing that merchants and shippers in eastern Virginia would profit from advances in manufacturing and modes of transit west of the Blue Ridge. He represented Williamsburg at a statewide internal improvements convention in Charlottesville the following month and sat on the thirteen-member committee that drafted a memorial urging the General Assembly to fund the construction of canals and roads. In a six-part essay that appeared in the Richmond Enquirer during December 1831 and January 1832, Dew made the case that economic development in Virginia required an investment in public works.
Dew gained national attention in 1829 with the publication of his Lectures on the Restrictive System, Delivered to the Senior Political Class of William and Mary College, a condemnation of the tariff of 1828 and of protective taxation in general. Guided by the principles of classical economics, Dew argued that the pursuit of individual self-interest was the only legitimate regulator of supply and demand, that comparative advantage should govern international trade, and that protectionism afforded unfair benefits to northern manufacturers at the expense of southern planters. He attended a free trade convention in Philadelphia in September and October 1831 and served on the committee assigned to write and deliver to Congress a report calling for a substantial reduction in the tariff rate. Concerned that the resulting document did not go far enough, Dew joined a fellow committee member in preparing a supplementary report that requested even lower rates and emphasized the conviction of many southerners that protectionism was unconstitutional. He laid out his argument in “The Tariff Question,” which appeared in the June 1832 edition of the American Quarterly Review, but Congress nevertheless passed a new protective tariff the following month.
Dew thrived in the dual role of teacher and public intellectual. In July 1834 he argued against usury laws in the Farmers’ Register, a popular agricultural journal, contending that a dynamic economy required flexible interest rates determined by market forces. In June of the following year, he contributed to the same journal an analysis of recent surges in consumer prices and in the availability of credit. After tracing these changes to a heightened foreign demand for American cotton and to an artificially large supply of circulating currency, he enumerated the perils of the speculative fever that was sweeping the United States. Contention regarding the structure of the nation’s banking system colored these and most other economic policy debates during the 1830s. Dew argued in his lectures and in several publications, including a pamphlet entitled The Great Question of the Day (1840), that both the strong national bank that the Whigs proposed and the independent treasury system that Democrats supported would endow the government with dangerous, heavy-handed power over the economy. He favored instead a system of state banks, perhaps affiliated with a weaker national bank, nimble enough to respond appropriately to periodic fluctuations in prices and in demand for credit.
Despite his frequent commentary on public policy issues, Dew’s partisan affiliation was difficult to discern. In 1831 he used the pages of the Democratic Richmond Enquirer to decline a request from voters in King and Queen County that he run for the U.S. House of Representatives in place of the retiring incumbent, a Jacksonian. Eight years later, citizens in the same district tried to recruit him as a Whig candidate for Congress, and again Dew disavowed any political ambition. In 1832 Dew was named to a statewide standing committee organized to place Philip Pendleton Barbour instead of Martin Van Buren on the Democratic presidential ticket with Andrew Jackson. Dew may have served as an informal adviser during the presidency of his close friend, states’-rights advocate John Tyler, who was elected vice president on the Whig ticket in 1840 but alienated many Whigs after advancing to the White House in April 1841. Two years later an acting editor of the Richmond Daily Whig accused Dew of indoctrinating his students with radical Democratic principles. During the presidential campaign of 1844 Dew wrote privately that he supported the Whig Henry Clay even though he strongly opposed Clay’s plans to revive the national bank and make use of protective tariffs.
Dew also gave serious thought to issues outside the realm of political economy. In 1835 the Southern Literary Messenger published in three installments Dew’s essay, “Dissertation on the Characteristic Differences between the Sexes, and on the Position and Influence of Women in Society.” Dew characterized women as modest, passive, virtuous, and religiously devout, attributing these traits to women’s physical weakness, which rendered them dependent on male goodwill. He also asserted that men, across all cultures and historical periods, were intellectually superior to women, but he blamed the disparity on differences in the substance and duration of education rather than on unequal natural endowments. Dew argued that it was appropriate to deny suffrage to women because their intense focus on their own families impeded their ability to comprehend broader political developments. In March 1836 the Southern Literary Messenger printed an address that illness had prevented Dew from delivering at the annual meeting of the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society (later Virginia Historical Society). In it, he contended that the United States’ federal republican form of government was ideally situated to spawn a great national literature and to foster a vibrant national character. He also asserted that slaves were happy and carefree, and that liberty and equality for white men were most secure in the slaveholding states.
Slavery Debates in Virginia
Nat Turner’s slave rebellion of 1831 prompted the General Assembly to discuss proposals calling for the gradual elimination of slavery in Virginia. Dew wrote the work that won him lasting fame, Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (1832), to make a case against emancipation. While the book is rightly remembered as a proslavery manifesto, it is more complex, and at times more self-contradictory, than is sometimes recognized; Dew did not portray slaveholding as an unqualified positive good. Some of his statements even seem consistent with his comment, made in 1826 to a princess of Santo Domingo during his stay in Italy, that slavery “was a calamity indeed and the greatest of our country and most bitterly did we lament it.” In his Review Dew proclaimed that white Americans were “unpolluted with the original sin” of slavery, having had the institution forced upon them early in colonial days. He agreed that slavery violated the spirit of Christianity, yet he declared that God himself had established the institution. He acknowledged the horrors of the slave trade but also suggested that transportation across the Atlantic had benefited Africans by placing them under the tutelage of civilized whites. Slavery was morally superior to other systems of labor, he contended, because it created an incentive for masters to care for workers.
Dew opposed even gradual emancipation, partly on the grounds that it would deprive Virginia of one-third of its wealth. Like many other white southerners, he argued that whites and freed blacks could not live alongside one other in peace. Though he had acknowledged the cultural achievements of the ancient Egyptians and Ethiopians in an earlier essay, he labeled American blacks in his Review as “entirely unfit for a state of freedom among the whites.” Dew dismissed colonization of freed American blacks in Africa as prohibitively expensive and logistically impractical, and he noted that the deportation of blacks would prevent Virginia from profiting as “a negro raising state for other states” of the South.
Dew’s proslavery points obscured his own vision of a future Virginia without slaves—and virtually without blacks. Economic development, he predicted, would attract capital and free laborers from the North, so that the state would gradually move away from dependence on slave labor and see its population whiten. Slavery was fine for southern latitudes, Dew maintained, but Virginia was “too far north for slave labor.” From early in the 1830s until his death, Dew himself owned only one slave. In his defense of involuntary servitude, Dew, like certain other partisans of the slaveholding South, offered an overarching view of society that contained yet another paradox. Each person “should remain in society in the condition in which he has been born and trained,” he wrote—yet he added with apparent pride that slavery had produced a “perfect spirit of equality” among whites.
Prominence and Early Death
In July 1836 William and Mary’s board named Dew president of the college. In his opening address to the student body, he admonished young planters to resist fanatics who wished to eliminate slavery. Dew emphasized the importance of a broad-based liberal arts education but singled out morals and politics as the most significant subjects of study. He continued teaching those subjects even as he assumed responsibility for the financial well-being of the school. Enrollment increased late in the 1830s, reaching a high of 140 students in 1839. Though the numbers declined early in the 1840s, Dew’s leadership produced a decade of prosperity and renown for William and Mary during a century in which the college frequently struggled for its very survival. The five-member faculty included law professor Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, whose efforts as a proponent of slavery and states’ rights combined with those of Dew to make the college an important wellspring of southern thought as sectional tension heightened. Deeply devoted to William and Mary, Dew turned down an appointment as professor of political economy and history at South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) in 1834 and an offer to teach moral philosophy and political economy at the University of Virginia in 1845.
Reinterment of Thomas R. Dew’s Remains
- Lectures on the Restrictive System, Delivered to the Senior Political Class of William and Mary College (1829)
- “The Tariff Question.” American Quarterly Review (June 1832)
- Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (1832)
- “Dissertation on the Characteristic Differences between the Sexes, and on the Position and Influence of Women in Society” Southern Literary Messenger (1835)
- The Great Question of the Day (1840)
- A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of the Ancient and Modern Nations (1853)