The slavery debate was a response to the bloodiest slave rebellion in U.S. history. On August 21, 1831, an enslaved preacher named Nat Turner and about sixty other men killed fifty-eight white men, women, and children in Southampton County. They threw some bodies into bonfires and left others for the wolves. They ransacked houses and stole or destroyed possessions, but they did not engage in rape or sexual violence. Governor John Floyd mobilized the state militia, which, joined by units from North Carolina, halted the rebellion and executed about 120 African Americans without trial. Turner was captured on October 30 and hanged on November 11.
The insurrection sent shockwaves of fear throughout Virginia. It brought to many minds images of the bloody slave revolt in Haiti (1791–1804) andto burn Richmond (1800). By the end of September and into early October, discussions of slavery began to appear in newspapers such as the Richmond Enquirer and the Richmond Constitutional Whig. Letter writers raised concerns about the safety of Virginians with so many African Americans, both enslaved and free, in their midst. Others wanted to censure black preachers and white ones, too, especially if, as one person wrote to the Whig, they discoursed “with a ranting cant about equality.”
By October, citizens began circulating petitions related to slavery. About forty in all, signed by approximately 2,000 Virginians, mostly men, were submitted to the House of Delegates. Several called for the gradual emancipation of slaves, some for colonization. Many were concerned about the state’s free blacks and their negative influence on the contentment of slaves and on general law and order.
A number of petitions proposed emancipation. The Virginia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Charles City County, in a, asked the House of Delegates to consider slavery “an evil in our Country[,] an evil which has been of long continuance, and is now of increasing magnitude.” Not only should slavery be abolished, the petitioners declared, but there should be a “restoration of the African race to the inalienable rights of man.” A petition from Buckingham County, , also suggested emancipation, but not out of fealty to the principles underlying the Declaration of Independence; rather, the signers worried that the state’s black population was growing too fast and its white population not at all. This would leave the state unstable and at the mercy of slavery’s “menace.”
A petition from Loudoun County,, went a step further and, after advocating gradual emancipation, called for “the removal of the entire colored population,” including those who had been free, from Virginia. Another petition, from a group of Augusta County women, dated January 19, 1832, decried “the bloody monster, which threatens us,” and urged the assembly to “remove it, ye protectors of our persons, ye guardians of our peace!”
About a third of the petitions specifically called for the removal of all free blacks.noted their “anomalous” position in society—free blacks were neither enslaved nor fully free, and therefore of questionable loyalty. Suspecting them of engaging in “dangerous intrigues with our slaves,” the Northampton men proposed that free blacks be exiled to Liberia. A petition from Washington County, , conceded that free blacks “may not be more prone to engage in insurrectionary movements than slaves:—but they are generally a great nuisance to our society.” A brief asked that the assembly “appropriate money to transport free persons of Color to the coast of Africa, and also, the power to purchase slaves and transport them likewise.”
, meanwhile, claimed that slaves were monopolizing the trades and recommended that no enslaved or free black man be “placed as an apprentice in any manner whatsoever to learn a trade or art under severe and onerous penalty.”
from Fluvanna County spoke for many when they declared that “a blight now hangs over our national prospects, and a cloud dims the sunshine of domestic peace throughout our State. Our ears have heard the wailings of distress, and a mysterious dread mingled with fearful suspicion, disturbs the sacred quiet of our homes. … We cannot conceal from ourselves that an evil is among us, which threatens to outgrow the growth and eclipse the brightness of our national blessings.”
Prelude to the Debate
Eyes turned to the General Assembly’s new session, set to begin on December 5. On November 17, shortly after the hanging of Nat Turner, the Constitutional Whig urged legislators to have the courage to act: “Every man feels the force of Mr. Jefferson’s metaphor, that we have the wolf by the ears, and its increasing truth. There is a general acknowledgement that something ought to be, and must be done.”
The public debate reminded Virginians of longstanding differences between those living in the eastern and in the western parts of the state. Voters east of the Blue Ridge Mountains owned a majority of the state’s enslaved population and vigorously defended their rights as slaveholders. Those west of the Blue Ridge generally favored emancipation. They depended less on slave labor and believed that eastern slaveholders enjoyed unfair privileges, among them counting their slaves toward representation in Congress. The Richmond Enquirer suggested that separation of East and West was not out of the question. “We can find no substantial reasons for continuing the connection between countries geographically divided by nature, inhabited by people of different origin, habits and principles, having no intercourse, and whose legislative history from its commencement, displays incessant disagreement and collision,” the paper wrote on December 2.
Four days later, Governor Floyd issued a, outlining his own preferences and priorities for the upcoming session. He thanked all those involved in putting down Turner’s insurrection and warned lawmakers that “negro preachers” have been chief among those “stirring up the spirit of revolt.” After railing against “inflammatory pamphlets” distributed by abolitionists and meddling northerners, the governor recommended that Virginia’s slave laws be revised in order “to preserve in due subordination the slave population of our state.” Finally, he echoed others’ concerns about the dangers posed by free blacks and declared it to be “indispensably necessary for them to withdraw from this community.”
Floyd, a native of western Virginia, made no mention of emancipation, but privately he was working toward that end. In his diary he wrote, “before I leave this Government I will have contrived to have a law passed gradually abolishing slavery in this State, or at all events to begin the work by prohibiting slavery on the West side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
In the Committee
The House of Delegates established a thirteen-man select committee to consider the governor’s suggestions and to respond to citizen petitions referred from the full House. On December 12, the House also assigned the committee to investigate the possibility of colonizing free blacks.
Two days later, committee member William H. Roane, a delegate from Hanover County and the grandson of, presented to the House two petitions and moved they be read aloud: the Quaker petition calling for the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, and calling for voluntary emancipation and colonization. William Goode, of Mecklenburg County, and his conservative allies, quickly requested a suspension of the reading and moved that the House not refer the petitions to the select committee. (Goode was not a member of the committee.) Laying groundwork for the debate to come, he then revised his motion to argue that both memorials be rejected because emancipation was “irrelevant” to the select committee’s charge to consider the governor’s message and the colonization of free blacks.
The select committee’s chairman,, of Dinwiddie County, was a brigadier general of the state militia and had commanded the forces that quelled Turner’s rebellion. He responded by defending a debate on the petitions. Other states had rid themselves of slavery, he said; “they mainly removed, and, in some cases, entirely eradicated it, by the same or nearly the same plan that was recommended by Mr. Jefferson. They did not object to touch the subject; but met it boldly, and are reaping the benefits of their measures. Does any man doubt that Slavery is an evil?” Brodnax went on to point out the deleterious economic effects of slavery, asserting that it was responsible for the “decay of our prosperity, and the retrograde movement of this once flourishing Commonwealth.”
While his specific arguments may not have won wide approval, Brodnax’s desire for open debate did. The House of Delegates voted 93 to 27 to refer the Quaker petition to the select committee.
On December 17, Thomas Miller, of Powhatan County, requested the correspondence ofand James Monroe from 1802 be sent to the committee. After the discovery of conspiracies led by the slave Gabriel in 1800 and the slave Sancho in 1802, then-president Jefferson and then-governor Monroe discussed the possibility of cooperation in a plan to colonize the state’s black population. On January 2, , of Berkeley County, resolved that the committee recommend to the House a scheme for gradual emancipation, while also guaranteeing to slaveholders either the right to hold their current slaves or to receive “adequate compensation for their loss.”
The Richmond Enquirer, in perhaps the most influential editorial of the session,, worried that the assembly was avoiding the real problem. “It is probable from what we hear,” the paper’s editor, Thomas Ritchie, wrote, “that the Committee on the colored population will report some plan for getting rid of free people of color—But is this all that can be done? Are we forever to suffer the greatest evil, which can scourge our land, not only to remain, but to increase in its dimensions?”
Ritchie went on to propose gradual emancipation as a means to reduce “the mass of evil.” The Whig echoed Ritchie, asserting that it would “fight by his side in this holy cause.”
Until now, the debate over slavery had been informal—held in the delegates’ back rooms and parlors—or limited largely to questions framed by the governor: Should black preachers be banned? Should slave laws be rewritten? Should free blacks be removed from the state? Referral of the Quaker petition had been a victory for emancipationists, but it had not yet sparked a full-fledged debate. And then William Goode, perhaps unwittingly, helped to do just that.
On January 10, he asked after the committee’s progress, and Chairman Brodnax replied that it was considering two modes of action: one, the removal of free blacks, and two, the “gradual extinction of slavery.” This second point prompted Goode to press the matter. The next day he proposed to the House that the select committee should “be discharged from the consideration of all petitions, memorials and resolutions, which have for their object, the manumission of persons held in servitude under the existing laws of this commonwealth, and that it is not expedient to legislate on the subject.” He warned that the “tranquility” of the community was in jeopardy and went on to criticize “the Public Press at Richmond” for encouraging abolition.
Goode’s resolution presented the assembly’s pro-emancipation members with the opportunity they were seeking. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, of Albemarle County, moved that Goode’s resolution be amended so that it instead called for legislation that would submit to a public vote a gradual emancipation and colonization plan, inspired by his grandfather Thomas Jefferson and by Randolph’s friend.
Debate over these two resolutions would at last constitute a focused consideration of emancipation itself, an ironic outcome for Goode, as Governor Floyd wryly noted: “the slave party … have produced the very debate they wished to avoid, and too, have entered upon it with open doors.”
By “open doors,” Floyd alluded to the House’s decision to open its galleries for these debates, allowing the public to hear the various arguments and newspapermen to transcribe and print the speeches. The Enquirer, in a, celebrated that the “silence” was “broken,” and that issues of “Conscience, whose ‘small, still voice’ we must hear,” would finally be aired. The Whig also thrilled at the open debate, writing nine days later that “multitudes throng to the Capitol, and have been compensated by eloquence which would have illustrated Rome or Athens.”
Arguments on Emancipation
On January 11, Samuel McDowell Moore, of Rockbridge County, rose to. He pointed out the “evil consequences of slavery” on slaveholders, who, for fear of their slaves, could never know “happiness, peace, and freedom from apprehension.” Slavery, he argued, had a tendency “to undermine and destroy everything like virtue and morality in the community,” promoting ignorance, primarily in the slaves themselves. Because of the taint that accompanied black men working the soil, free men scoffed at such labor and were instead “gradually wasting away their small patrimonial estates and raising their families in habits of idleness and extravagance.” As a result, he claimed, Virginia trailed behind other states economically. Moore also suggested that a large slave population might interfere with Virginia’s ability to fend off foreign aggression, and that it might interfere with the growth of the white population.
The next day, James H. Gholson, of Brunswick County, responded with anas delineated in the U.S. Constitution. Citing the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation, he wondered, “if private property be not now secure in the hands of its owner, I know of no vigilance or circumspection, which could shield it from rapacity or usurpation.” He also worried that if free men were so willing to sacrifice their property, they might soon sacrifice other rights, too.
Suggesting that slavery was neither his peers’ invention nor their fault, Gholson noted that their only responsibility was to “make it subservient to the best purposes of society.” And toward that end, he observed “that the slaves of Va. are as happy a laboring class as exists upon the habitable globe … they are content today, and have no care or anxiety for tomorrow.” Gholson and others, in effect, argued that slavery was a positive good, protecting black men and women from their own ignorance and from conditions that were worse, even for free men, in Europe. (John C. Calhoun more famously made the same argument in a speech before the U.S. Senate in 1837.)
Governor Floyd’s nephew, William B. Preston, of Montgomery County, took up the question of property rights,“are property under statute, and they must remain property until that statute is repealed.” Enslaved men and women, he said, were born with the rights of human beings, and those rights could be restored by the state. Others argued that a state in jeopardy—such as that occasioned by slavery—had an obligation to seize such property for the purposes of its own defense. Still other delegates wondered whether unborn slaves should be considered property and, if so, whether any emancipation scheme, no matter how ingenious, was possible.
On January 16, the select committee submitted its report to the House, declaring it “inexpedient for the present to make any legislative enactments for the abolition of slavery.” Preston offered an amendment replacing “inexpedient” with “expedient.” This led to a shift in the debate from Goode’s amendment to Preston’s, but the arguments still focused on the morality of slavery, the workability of emancipation, the limits of property rights, and the nature of liberty.
On January 25, the House rejected Preston’s amendment, and to the committee’s report added a preamble, proposed by Archibald Bryce Jr., of Goochland County:
Profoundly sensible of the great evils arising from the condition of the coloured population of this commonwealth: induced by humanity, as well as policy, to an immediate effort for the removal in the first place, as well of those who are now free, as of such as may hereafter become free: believing that this effort, while it is in just accordance with the sentiment of the community on the subject, will absorb all our present means; and that a further action for the removal of the slaves should await a more definite development of public opinion. The preamble’s vague wording was crafted to mollify both sides, although it seemed to please the pro-emancipation delegates more. An analysis of its narrow approval, according to the historian Eva Sheppard Wolf, demonstrates that there was “significant interest in antislavery policies and a broad consensus that the free black population ought to be reduced, but the debate ended in victory for the conservatives who opposed emancipation, since the legislature decided not to consider any abolition scheme and never broached the subject again.”
A bill calling for the involuntary removal of free blacks from Virginia was amended to require the consent of those leaving. It failed in the Senate, however, making for a “ludicrous finale,” in the words of the Constitutional Whig. A “police bill” did manage to pass both houses. It forbade both free and enslaved African Americans from preaching and prohibited slaves from attending nighttime religious meetings unless accompanied by their white masters. It also barred free blacks from participating in trades and handicrafts if they refused the opportunity to be removed to Liberia.
Writing in 1941, the historian Joseph Clarke Robert described the 1832 debate in Virginia as the “final and most brilliant of the Southern attempts to abolish slavery.” That it ended in what was largely the status quo did not seem to overly concern pro-emancipationists such as Thomas Jefferson Randolph. He told the House that the “friends of abolition have gained all they asked.” William D. Sims, of Halifax County, worried that the mere discussion of such matters would “lead public opinion” in the wrong direction. In fact, public opinion, at least in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions, turned more firmly against abolition, equating it with northern agitation. More than anything, however, the debates demonstrate just how divided Virginia was over slavery.