Speech by James H. Gholson to the House of Delegates (January 12, 1832)


On January 12, 1832, the second day of what is now known as the Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831–1832, James H. Gholson, of Brunswick County, gave an appeal to the rights of property owners as delineated in the U.S. Constitution. Gholson cites the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation.


Mr. Gholson rose and said, that the incidental debate which had just ended, demonstrated the determination of the House to discuss the question. Some gentlemen had been pleased to say that such a course was rendered proper from courtesy and respect to himself, who, by parliamentary usages was entitled to the floor. He thanked them; but if they conceived, that in granting him this privilege, they either gratified his feelings or consulted his wishes, they were mistaken—greatly mistaken. Those who know my sentiments (said Mr. Gholson) on this absorbing question best, know that I deprecate the discussion of it, and that I have heartily co-operated in every effort to avoid it. It is a question, which from its very nature, should never be openly discussed, until we are ripe for prompt and energetic action. Its discussion now can be productive of no beneficial results; but, according to my best judgment, is fraught with incalculable mischief. The course of our present deliberations is unique in the history of our legislation. Our political fathers have set us no such example. Sir, we are unmindful and regardless of the prudence and circumspection that marked the better days of the Republic. Then, subjects of the delicate and momentous character of this were considered with closed doors and secret journals—now they are discussed with open doors, thronged galleries, and busy reporters. Wedebate it—the Press debates it—everybody debates it. And all this is done as if the slaves around us had neither eyes nor ears—or that having ears, they heard not, and having eyes, they saw not. It is, however, too late now to repine; this discussion cannot be avoided—already has the report of it gone abroad. I then call upon gentlemen who agree with me in thinking the proposition of the gentleman from Albemarle as monstrous and unconstitutional, to meet it publicly—publicly to discuss it—publicly to expose it, and publicly to reject it.

In order to present the question now under debate in its proper aspect, I beg leave to sketch a brief history of the progress of this subject. Very early in our session, a Memorial to this Body, from the Society of Friends, praying the emancipation of slaves, was presented to this House, by the gentleman from Hanover, (Mr. Roane.) A motion was then made to reject the Memorial, but as such a course was unusual, under our rules of proceeding, the House declined considering the principle of the Memorial, and it was referred as a matter of course. At the first and second meetings of the Committee, grave and important resolutions were offered, favorable to emancipation. The Committee did not act on these resolutions—but they found their way into the public journals; they were announced with due pomp and circumstance, and a misguided public was led to believe that the Committee was engaged in anxious and doubtful deliberation on the subject of the abolition of slavery. Hence, the most anxious solicitude has filled the public mind—the tenure by which one hundred millions of property is held has been weakened, and distrust and apprehension have succeeded confidence and repose. Sir, nearly a month has elapsed since the reference of this subject, and no report is yet made, and we are informed by the Chairman of that Committee that we may not expect one under a week from this time.

Such are the circumstances under which the gentleman from Mecklenburg has offered his resolution—under which he asks this House to discharge the Committee from the further consideration of this subject, and thus to allay public excitement, and restore the public mind to its wonted confidence and tranquility. And such, too, Mr. Speaker, are the circumstances, under which the gentleman from Albemarle (Mr. Randolph) has thought it his duty, to offer his proposition as a substitute to the resolution of the gentleman from Mecklenburg.

It is this substitute that claims the immediate consideration of this House, and which has already elicited a discussion, unprecedented in its character and objects, in the parliamentary annals of Virginia.

What, Sir, is the substitute? It is a proposition that all our slaves born after a particular date, shall, at a particular date thereafter, unless removed beyond our limits, become the property of the State. It proposes the confiscation of property, without crime—the appropriation of private property to public uses, without just compensation. I have pronounced this proposition monstrous and unconstitutional, and though the epithets do not please the fastidious taste of some gentlemen, I shall undertake to prove it so.

I hope that, in Virginia, I may refer to Constitutional provisions as of binding obligation; they have ever heretofore, been thought tolerably good authority with us; and, while we have deemed it wise to abide by them ourselves, we have not forgotten to advise our neighbors to “do likewise.”

By the 5th article of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it is provided that “private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation.” This, Sir, was an amendment proposed by the people, through their State Convention, and intended as a monument and protection of individual rights against Governmental usurpation. The same provision, in the same words, is incorporated in the very body of our own Constitution; and 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. But this sacred principle of “meum et tuum” does not derive its sanctions from Conventional charters—it has its foundations deep laid in the principles of justice—it is the very ligament which binds society together; and permit me, Sir, to tell gentlemen, that if they once sever it, society itself is no longer worth preservation—nay, a state of nature itself would be desirable—for, then, minorities (if minorities there were) would be spared the contumely and mockery of being tied, hand and foot, “secundum legem,” at the caprice and pleasure of triumphant and vindictive majorities. Without this principle, there is no civilization—no government. So essentially does the very existence of society depend on it, that the horrors of war, pestilence and famine, silence it demands only for a season. Necessity only can triumph over it, and when the necessity ceases, it springs up again with demands of indemnity for the past and the assertion of its usual prerogatives for the future. Then, Sir, “private property cannot be taken for public use, without just compensation.” But, while gentlemen reluctantly assent to the truth of this proposition, we have seen them flying to various expedients to weaken the force of its obligations, and divert its application from the principles contained in the substitute now under discussion. Among these expedients is one, which, when it shall be announced to my constituents, will fill them with wonder at the lights, which illumine the present age, and with mortification at the shameful ignorance in which they live. They really believe, Sir, that slaves are property, and that they belong to their masters. I beg leave to apologize for their ignorance. This opinion, Sir, was impressed on their minds at a tender age. It has been uninterrupted in its operation, and has grown with their growth, and strengthened with their strength. Their forefathers and political teachers, profoundly ignorant of the subject, instead of awaiting the light, which has just now dawned, referred them to the authorities of statutes constitutions and treatises. It is true that the Statute Law of Virginia, under her colonial Government, recognized slaves as property—it is true that they existed as property, at the date of our revolution. It is true that they are recognized as property by the Constitution of the United States—claimed as property by her treatise with foreign powers, and treated as property by her acts of legislation. It is moreover true, that the State Law of Virginia recognizes them as property, through every page of her code—that dying men bequeath them—living men convey them by deed, and that they are held both by purchase and inheritance. The people of Brunswick, Mr. Speaker, are prone to cherish their ancient prejudices; and though they cannot but admire these modern lights, it may be, that they will continue to think “slaves, property.” If they should, I beg gentlemen, from the abundance of their “philanthropy,” to ascribe their obstinacy, not to “interest,” but defective education.

Whilst the above class of new-light politicians have pushed their theory with all the ardor of newborn zeal, another sect has arisen—not quite so ultra in their professions, but equally dangerous in their principles, and more covert in their designs. This, Sir, is the “post nati” party—the gentlemen who converse so learnedly and so hypercritically about property “esse,” and property in “posse,” property in presenti, and property in futuro. Sir, to these ingenious and discriminating politicians, the people of Brunswick have but little to say.

It has always (perhaps seriously) been considered by that steady and old-fashioned people, that the owner of land had a reasonable right to its annual profits; the owner of orchards, to their annual fruits; the owner of brood mares, to their product; and the owner of female slaves, to their increase. We have not the fine-spun intelligence, nor legal acumen, to discover the technical distinctions drawn by gentlemen. The legal maxim of “Partus sequitur ventrem” is coeval with the existence of the right of property itself, and is founded in wisdom and justice. It is on the justice and inviolability of the maxim, that master foregoes the service of the female slave; has her nursed and attended during the period of her gestation, and raises the helpless and infant offspring. The value of the property justifies the expanses; and I do not hesitate to say, that in its increase consists much of our wealth. Nay, Sir—we have been told so in the progress of this debate, and that too in rather a reproachful spirit. We have been admonished that our hands, from wretched cultivation, have been exhausted—that our slaves have become valueless and unprofitable—that our agriculture will not support us; and that bankruptcy is our fate. And how, Sir, is it proposed to alleviate our distress? It is wrestling from us, by the strong arm of power, without our consent, and without compensation, the only means we possess under heaven, according to the showing of gentlemen themselves, by which we can discharge our private obligations, and meet the exactions of two hungry and consuming governments. Mr. Speaker, the great poet of nature has justly said, “you do take my life, when you take the means whereby I live.”

And I submit it to these disinterested advocates of the equal rights of man, to determine whether freemen, conscious of their rights, and with ability to defend them, will not as soon sacrifice the first as tamely surrenders the latter. I am aware, Sir, of the awkward and ridiculous position, I seem to occupy, in gravely debating questions like these. Sir, they are in truth not debatable. When the distant reader shall discover, that the Virginia Legislature, in the year 1832 is engaged in solemn debate on the questions, whether “private property can be taken for public use without compensation,” whether “slaves are property,” and whether “the increase of slaves is property,” he will be lost in amazement, and will be ready to exclaim of us, “can these be the sons of the fathers?”

But Sir, another and a still stranger light has broken in upon us. The gentleman from Rockbridge (Mr. Moore) disdaining to examine this subject under the Constitution and laws, has ascended to the very fountain of our political power, and rests himself upon our Bill of Rights. “All men, by nature, are equally free and independent.” The gentleman thinks that here he has found a power sufficiently comprehensive and resistless to burst asunder the chains of slavery, and set the captive free. Mr. Speaker, I have been educated to regard the framers of our Bill of Rights and Constitution with the most filial veneration and respect. I have been taught to esteem them, not only wise men, but just men. But if this position of the gentleman of Rockbridge be true, then do I, in the face of this General Assembly, and in the hearing of their posterity, charge these political architects with the grossest folly, or the veriest [sic] knavery on earth. Will you believe it, Sir, when I tell you that these great men of the revolution owned slaves? Yes, actually owned slaves, and worked them too—even dies in the possession of them, and bequeathed them to their children. If then, the gentleman’s construction of their language be true, they are either chargeable with folly of not understanding what they themselves had written, or with the knavery of having violated through their lives, principles and rights, which they had solemnly recommended to the adoption of others. But the gentleman’s construction of the Bill of Rights is not just. The section to which he has referred is only a declaration of the natural rights of man—not a declaration of the powers of this Government, or of the social obligations or rights of society. If the gentleman’s construction should obtain, the bands which bind society together would at once dissolve—the relations of husband and wife, and parent and child, master and apprentice, master and servant, governor and governed would end, and even our present deliberations would be “most strange and unnatural.”

The Bill of Rights will not sustain gentleman in their defense of this high-handed measure. It is as unavailing to them, as either the Constitution or their modern definition of property. There is but one plausible ground on which it can be rested; and to that, Sir, the gen[tleman] from Buckingham (Mr. Bolling) with more discretion, and not less valor, than his associates, has fled. It is but the ground of necessity, Sir—self-preservationpublic safety. That is high ground—and should not be lightly considered or incautiously approached. Show me, sir that the salvation or existence of this society depends on the adoption of this substitute, and, with submission, I will cry “Salus populi Suprema est Lex.” Show me the horrors of insurrection are gathering around us, and this is our only refuge, and promptly will I exclaim “inter arma silent leges.” Pardon me, however, if, on a subject of this high import, I reject the evidences offered here. I cannot consent that the tenure by which my constituents hold their property shall be decided by gloomy pictures that the somber pencil of disordered fancy may present to our view, or the intemperate ebullitions of impassioned orators may conjure up. No, Sir—the passing stranger, ignorant of our history, who had heard the debate of yesterday, would suppose that the hand of ruin and dismay was upon us; that the spirit of desolation was abroad; that the yell of insurrection echoed through our land, and that songs of mourning filled our borders. I beg such a stranger “to start not—’tis but a fancy sketch.” I beg him to believe, that before this most unwise and unfortunate discussion, all was tranquil and composed; and that this body itself, presented an aspect of happiness so abiding, as to expel all anxiety or apprehension. On the one hand, the bright and undazzled gaze of aspiring and youthful ambition!—on the other, the calm serenity of contented and peaceful old age.

Many of us have left far behind us unprotected and undefended, the dearest objects of our affections—the wives of our bosoms, and the children they have borne us; and if all that we have heard in this debate be true—if the awful and impending dangers which gentlemen depict, do, in very truth, threaten the objects of our care and love, how unmanly it is that we sit here in idle debate when we should fly to their rescue and protection. Sir, these alarmists do injustice to Virginia, and the character of our people. The dangers they imagine do not exist—the general alarm and apprehension, of which they speak, do not exist. The late unfortunate occurrences in Southampton, did, for a time, fill the public mind with dismay, and call into action all the sensibilities of our natures. The awful scenes of that tragedy are deeply engraved in the memories of our citizens. It is natural they should be. The very idea of servile war is full of horror, and its consequences, above all others, cause the hearts of brave men to faint and die within them. Sir, most deeply did we sympathize with our neighbors of Southampton, and most cheerfully would we have aided them; nor do I claim for my constituents any exemption from the alarm and excitement, which pervaded this community. But I do contend that this alarm and excitement have subsided—that society is restored to its ordinary current and repose, and that “all sense of security is not gone.” No, Sir; the people of our country again sleep quietly on their pillows, and would, in all probability, have enjoyed uninterrupted repose, had it not been for this false legislative cry of “Wolf!” “Wolf!” Gentlemen, in the heat of their own intemperance, and by the aid of their own disturbed and distempered fancies, raise spirits and specters at pleasure—gaze at them with horror, and then set about to show their skill in the office of exorcism. These spirits and specters, they call “necessity,” “self-preservation,” “public safety.” The exorcism is the simple process of taking eighty or one hundred millions of private property for public use, without compensation. Mr. Speaker, it is idle to argue this question before this enlightened body, on the pleas of necessity and the public safety. They cannot be sustained, for they are not founded in truth. They are questions of fact; and before my country, which is my jury; I pronounce them to be false.

I have endeavored to show that private property is sacred. That slaves and their increase are property—and that no high and overruling necessity exists for taking them from their owners. If I have succeeded, Sir, I have done enough; and I ought, perhaps, here to close this argument. It is here, that the powers of the Government over this subject end. “Thus far may ye go, but no farther”—”We stand on our chartered rights.”

But, gentlemen in pursuit of their favorite theory have adventured on boundless ocean of policy, expediency, and even speculation; and as they have taken along with them on board, my rights and property, I hope I shall be excused if I pursue them though the sea is rough and the voyage dangerous.

The gentlemen from Rockbridge has admonished us that we cannot resist the lights of the age—nay, Sir, this good old Commonwealth, “the blessed mother of us all,” has been likened to the ancient Apostle, Saul of Tarsus—that she is stricken to the earth by the light of heaven, on account of her manifold transgressions, and that we must submit, Mr. Speaker, I have heard of these lights before, but I have looked for them in vain—I have never seen them. The wretched and misguided fanatic, who excited the horrors of the late Southampton massacre, thought he saw them. It proved, however, a delusive meteor, and conducted him to death—and now, all his lights and all his inspirations are shrouded in the darkness of the grave. Northern lights have appeared. Incendiary publications have scattered their illuminating rays among us; to conduct the slave to massacre and bloodshed. But these are not lights of the age, or lights from heaven. It is the “glare of Avernus—a darkness visible,” in the light of which demons and devils alone delight to dwell. I most ardently hope that these northern lights will not be disregarded or overlooked by Southern Republics of this Union. Sir, they must be extinguished, or the most melancholy consequences will ensue. Already, do I fear that their machinations have succeeded in infusing into the minds of our slaves, a spirit of restlessness and insubordination. These are the true authors of all our apprehensions and unhappiness; and in the voice of my constituents, I call upon my Government to interpose all the powers at its command to shield and protect them from the evil. These fanatical miscreants are not only violating the statutory laws of Virginia; they are violating the soundest and justest principles of international law itself, and weakening and breaking asunder, those kind and amicable relations, which should ever subsist between sister States of the same confederacy. Among civilized Governments in friendship, with each other, when a citizen or subject of one power excites sedition or rebellion in another, it is just cause of complaint on the part of the injured Government—and I know of but three modes of redress. The Government of the offending subject must either punish him itself, deliver him up to the injured Government to be punished, or justify the citizens, and incur the consequence. Sir, I have too much respect for certain Northern Governments within this Union to believe that they will, upon reflection, tolerate any longer, the publication, and circulation of the dangerous and incendiary productions, which have of late issued from their press. If, however, in this I am disappointed, and if, from the peculiar organization of the Governments under which we live, there is no mode of peaceable redress secured to us, I declare, on the responsibility of the public station I now occupy that rather than submit to the continuance of evils like these, without the hope of redress, I would appeal to war, and deem it the lesser evil.

But I have digressed. I return, in search of the lights of the age, to which the gentleman from Rockbridge has so eloquently alluded. Does it emanate from that great fountain of radiance, which should ever illumine and direct the councils of this body—the will of our constituents? Sir, from our wide-extended territory, and hundreds of thousands of population, but two memorials have been addressed to this body on the subject of emancipation: one from the county of Loudoun, and the other from a society of Quakers in Hanover—who held no slaves—who have no common interest with the great body of our people in this property, and who advocate its abolition from a discharge of what they conceive to be a religious duty. Late occurrences have attracted the public mind to the contemplation of questions like this; and had the people decided this matter, gentlemen cannot persuade me but that the people would be heard. Sir, the community entertains no such sentiments, as those ascribed to it in this debate. There is, in the great body of the people, a principle of abiding justice, which will repudiate them. There is one question, on which, I think the public mind is definitely settled; that is, the propriety of removing the free colored population beyond our limits. The subject of abolition, is one which has not engaged their serious attention; and when they shall be informed that we are here, engaged in solemn debate upon it, and that, too, on the principle of that their slaves are not their property, I predict it will create a shock in public sentiment, unequalled since the days of our Revolution. Mr. Speaker, what portion of this Commonwealth is it that demands this measure at our hands? Not the East, Sir; for they rise up, almost as one man, against it. Is it the West? I hope not. I invoke to my aid, on the present occasion, those high and ennobling sentiments, which have already been professed by Western gentlemen. Sir, the East has been offered a “carte blanche” on this subject; and I indulge the confident expectation that the practice of gentlemen will accord with their professions. It is a question in which the East is vitally, and, I may say, almost exclusively, interested; and I do not feel that I am illiberal when I ask of the West, on this subject, to consult our interests, our feelings—nay, Sir, our prejudices, if you please.

Has the West any direct interest in this question? With half our territory and nearly half our white population, they possess but a few more than fifty thousand slaves. Their prosperity and happiness would not be promoted by a diminution of this number, for, they are not more than enough to perform the heaviest and most menial offices of labor. But if the number be augmented, it will be at their own option and discretion—we will never multiply this evil upon them. Sir, emigrants from the East do not settle in Western Virginia. When the spirit of enterprise, or the pressure of misfortune breaks us from our moorings here; when the misery and wretchedness, of which gentlemen so eloquently declaim become so oppressive as to turn us from the graves of our fathers, we do not “halt by the way”; but far in the depths of the Western forests do we “pitch our Ebenezers,” and there, under more happy auspices, attempt to build up anew our shattered fortunes. Western Virginia need not fear emigration from us. Neither need she ever fear an undue growth of her slave population. Her climate, her soil, and her agricultural pursuits, all forbid it. Slavery will never exist to any alarming extent, except where the planting interest is predominant. Does she fear for her safety from insurrections among us? She has an amulet of protection, and an impregnable barrier for her security, in the lofty mountains that separate us—from the summit of which she may look down which [with?] complacent security on the devastation of the vale below.

Do the pecuniary or political interests of the West demand this unjust sacrifice at our hands? Sir, the moment you divest us of the property in our slaves, you destroy the greatest and most efficient element of taxation. The internal improvement of our State has ever been a favorite object with the West; and has ever, more than any other question, divided our counsels. They cannot be effected without means to build them, and national wealth to sustain them; but, take from us our slaves, and you destroy our ability to pay. You impair the value of every other species of property we possess—our lands themselves become a “caput mortuum“—and the country itself becomes desolate and deserted. Think you, Sir, a country like this would encourage a splendid system of internal improvements?

But, the gentleman from Buckingham is willing to see us stripped of this property, to the amount of $80,000,000, because “it has heretofore been a bone of contention between Eastern and Western Virginia, and this Government and that of the United States.” If the gentleman’s position were true, I humbly conceive he would be purchasing peace at a most exorbitant price. But, I question the truth of the gentleman’s position. I am aware that in the late Virginia Convention, on the question of the distribution of political power, this property gave rise to some excitement; but, under the operations of the Government, I see no cause why it should excite dissentions on dissatisfaction. The West do not envy us in the possession of it; and I will do them the justice to say that whenever questions of taxation have come up, they have most frankly admitted that slaves were property. It’s true, they sometimes contend, that we ought to pay a tax 35cts. per head, instead of 25c for this “valuable property,” but so long as we would pay enough, and apply it properly, they have ever, heretofore, been content that we should retain our slaves and enjoy them as property. In relation to our connection with General Government, and the influence of this property on our own interests, in that connection, it is necessary that I should say but little. That Southern interests and the eternal principles of justice have been sacrificed under that Government, to the cupidity and avarice of a rapacious and unrelenting majority is the settled and conscientious opinion of Virginia. We suffer enough, God knows! Sir, from its unjust and oppressive operations now. But, I think I hazard but little in saying that were it not for the political power which the possession of this property secures to the South in the counsels of that Government, the oppression under which we now labor, would long since have crushed us to the earth. Yes, Sir, it has not only given us the means of meeting its unjust and cruel exactions; but it has aided in giving us on the floor of Congress a talented and fearless representation, who have not hesitated to thunder our wrongs in the ears of our professors.

Mr. Speaker, gentlemen have entertained us in the progress of this debate with long and labored dissertations on the evils of slavery, and the abstract questions of its justice, piety, and morality. The gentleman from Rockbridge, in an essay, historical and statistical, has conducted us from the early ages of venerable old China, by regular gradations, up to our own degenerate times. Sir, I have been entertained and instructed; but I cannot debate these questions with gentlemen. I stand here not to argue the abstract question of slavery, or its morality, or its immorality. If the subject under consideration proposed to legalize the slave trade; or the gentleman from Rockbridge can show me that the present generation is responsible for the existence of slavery within our limits, I will most respectfully consider the argument he has addressed to us. But Sir, it is as unkind as it is unjust to reproach a generation for misfortunes transmitted to her by generations before her, and from which no exertions of hers could relieve her. To whom is Virginia indebted for this “accursed evil,” if gentlemen will call it so? To a kind mother and still kinder sisters. To Great Britain, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, &c. Yes, Mr. Speaker, those very States, which are now nursing in their bosoms the fanatical miscreants who “laugh at our calamity, and mock when our fear cometh,” were the most active agents in entailing this curse upon us—in holding to our feverish lips this poisoned chalice. But, while they crowded our markets with captured Africans, they carried but few to their own—and why, Sir? Because conscience and a nice sense of morality forbade it? No, Sir; but because the African constitution sunk under the rigor of their climate, and their soil and agricultural pursuits did not demand slave labor. A regard to principle has not regulated this matter. The curious observer will perceive in the history of this subject that slaves are in demand only where the soil and climate create planting interest.

We are not responsible for the existence of slavery amongst us. It is here; and no reproaches on the one hand, or regrets on the other, can avoid it. But, it is the duty of a just, wise, and virtuous people, to mitigate its evils to the utmost extent of their ability, and to make it subservient to the best purposes of society; and on the ground I challenge investigation, I will not discuss the abstract question of the right of slavery; but I will say that the slaves of V[irgini]a. are as happy a laboring lot as exits upon the habitable globe. They are as well fed, as well clothed, and as well treated. In health, but reasonable labor is required of them—in sickness, they are nursed and attended to. In times of plenty, they live in waste—in times of scarcity, they do not want—they are content today, and have no care or anxiety for tomorrow. Cruel treatment of them is discountenanced by society, and until of late, their privileges were daily extending. Among what laboring class will you find more happiness and less misery? Not among the serfs and laboring poor of Europe! No, Sir. Nor among the servants to the North of us.

Our slave population is not only a happy one, but it is a contented, peaceful, and harmless one. For the last sixty years, while riots, seditions, rebellions, revolutions, bloodshed, and convulsions, have marked the histories of the fairest nations upon earth—while licentiousness and anarchy, and tyranny and despotism have held their alternate sway—governments been crumbled into atoms, and empires torn from their deep foundations—what has been the history of the internal condition of the State in which we live? Sir, during all this time, we have had one insurrection. And to a faithful history of that, I beg to call the attention of this House for a moment. I do not wish to palliate the horrors of that occurrence; but I do wish to show to this House and this people that none of its characteristics are of such a cast as to destroy a sense of security, or to attach suspicion to the slave population generally. What is its history, Sir? An ignorant, religious fanatic, conceived the idea of insurrection. He succeeded in involving four or five others, of his immediate neighborhood, in his designs: They commence the massacre—they traverse a region of country containing hundreds of slaves; but neither threats, promises, nor intoxication, could secure more than forty to fifty adherents—they remain embodied something more than twenty-four hours—then disperse without being forced—are taken without resistance—and are at last hung on the evidence of persons of their own class and color. Is there anything in this history, Mr. Speaker, to justify the belief that this whole class of our population is corrupt, treacherous, and dangerous? Sir, in opposition to this solitary occurrence of insubordination, I could present to you innumerable instances of the most steadfast fidelity and devoted loyalty—but it is unnecessary. Suffice it to say that I believe it a happy, and, when well regulated, a harmless population—A chivalrous and high-minded Virginian, while standing in London, was reproached by a disciple of Wilberforce, with the existence and evils of slavery in Virginia. He indignantly replied that he believed more misery, vice, and corruption existed within ten miles of the spot on which he stood than prevailed in the entire slave population of Virginia.

I come now, Sir, with eyes of affection to contemplate good old Eastern Virginia—that “barren,” “exhausted,” “impoverished,” “ruined and desolate land”—over which we have heard so many mournful dirges and weeping Jeremiads. The poetic young traveler gazes on our second growth of pines in mournful sorrow, and imagines he hears the wind, which sighs through their boughs, the complaining spirit of his country’s decay. He looks upon gullies of our hill sides, amazed and aghast, and thinks he beholds in them the track of the ploughshare of desolation. The annual traveler carefully gathers together all the earnings of the year, and goes north to spend it—(thereby enriching this poor old state, Mr. Speaker)—he walks around the environs of their splendid cities—falls into rapture at the beauty of their gardens, and returns to pity Virginia, and to exclaim, “all is insipid—all is barren.”

Mr. Speaker, gentlemen who draw these gloomy pictures of Eastern wealth and agriculture, are—my life upon it!—better poets than planters. Gentlemen who undertake to compare objects, should always examine both—and examine them in all their aspects. Many brilliant contrasts have been drawn in the course of this debate between Northern and Southern agriculture—and all in favor of the former. And yet, I doubt whether gentlemen possess the necessary information to justify a decision. We cannot judge the general character of cultivation in a country, by that which surrounds its cities, or borders its navigable streams. We must visit the interior—and if gentlemen will do this, they will find to their astonishment that Virginia does not fear comparison as much as they had supposed. They will find, Sir, that excepting Pennsylvania, she might compare without disparagement, with any other State in the Union. The lands on the river, the sound of whose waters we now hear, are as well cultivated, and many of them as highly improved, as any within this Union. It is true, Sir, our poor lands are not well cultivated—nor are they in any other country under Heaven where good lands be acquired. I have been amused, when I heard gentlemen talk of improving lands rendered sterile and unproductive by the hand of God, while others, rich, abundant and productive, lay on every side.

But, I invite gentlemen who think we cultivate our lands so miserably, and that our resources are drying up, to look to the quantity and value of our products—the amount of our exports—our consumption—and last, though not least, our extravagance. Sir, national vanity is as excusable as personal vanity is despicable. I possess the former I confess; and I cannot—I will not, join in decrying and depreciating all that is domestic—all that is Virginian. But, this is becoming a common theme of eloquence on the floor; it is enlisted in favor of every scheme and proposition submitted to our consideration—and this decline and deterioration of Virginia is attributed to any and every cause which may suit the speaker’s views or fancy. Is the subject of emancipation raised? all our ruin is the result of slavery. Is the subject of internal improvement on the tapis? all our inferiority and inactivity are attributable to bad roads and unnavigable streams. Is the subject of education in debate? all our decline is attributable to ignorance and want of Schools, Academics, and Colleges. When are gentlemen right, and when are they wrong?—or, are they not wrong altogether?

Although this attempt to prove Virginia exhausted and impoverished, suits neither my taste nor opinions, I might perhaps have been content, had gentlemen paused here. Poverty, though a heavy misfortune, is no crime: But the gentleman from Buckingham, in his ardent zeal to attribute the “whole sum of human ills” to this self-same cause of slavery, has informed us, that our intelligence, our morality, our character, our reputation for chivalry and honor are impaired and declining. Sir, this is most unwelcome intelligence to me—it is deeply wounding to my national pride, and blights the most glorious and ennobling feelings which ever fill my mind, on swell my heart. I indulge a faint hope that the gentleman is mistaken; his poetic mind, on the present occasion, is tinged you know, Mr. Speaker, with a gloomy cast.—But, then, his station and opportunities enable him to know. And surely, on a point like this, he would not speak unadvisedly. It is true that but a very little time back, one of the most chivalrous sons of the most chivalrous people on earth, said that, “Virginia, like the mother of the Gracchi, might point to her sons and exclaim, hæc mea ornamenta.” It is true, that on another occasion, it has been said of her, that “though her lands were poor, her men were brave and her daughters virtuous.” But these must have been the prejudices of an indulgent partiality—they could not have been faithful delineations of our character; for, they are disclaimed in the Halls of Legislation. The gentleman, however, would have afforded a melancholy gratification to this House, if he had shown how, and in what respects we are losing those great and valuable attributes of our national character. If he only means, when he speaks of intelligence, that our people are not so generally educated as others, I have only to reply that others may have advanced more rapidly than ourselves, but that we certainly have not declined; and that our want of education is not because we have slaves to make our bread, and provide for us our wants. I have, moreover, to advise the intelligent gentleman that when he shall have had more age and experience, he will discover that the great body of this people, so far as an intimate knowledge of their rights—both private and public, evidences intelligence—is an intelligent people. Yes, Sir, and many now on this floor, when they shall hear the thunder of the popular voice on the subject now under discussion, will be forced to exclaim “vox populi vox dei.” As to our national character, I trust it vindicates itself, and requires no defense at my hands. I discover nothing in the annals of the past, or in the history of the current times, to impair its dignity, or sully its purity.

Permit me now, Mr. Speaker, in a very brief and concise manner to address to this House some considerations of policy, which in my best judgment, forbid the propriety of legislative action, at this time, on this most absorbing and momentous question.

It was in August last that we were clothed by our constituents with the powers it was expected we would exercise during our present deliberations. I call the attention of gentlemen to this fact because we are ever prone to forget the tenure by which we enjoy power. The occurrences, which have, beyond controversy, given rise to the agitation of this question, have their date posterior to our elections. We have received no instructions—and but two memorials are addressed to us on the subject. And yet, Sir, we are told, that this is the accepted time, and that we must instanter apply our legislative wisdom to the disposition of a question, compared with which, either for its intrinsic importance, the circumstances with which it is surrounded, or its undefinable consequences, has nothing like a parallel in our history, since the era of our independence. Is this expected of us? Has Virginia, with an anxious eye to this vast and momentous subject, convened together her faithful and well-tried political patriarchs, to consult together for the public safety? Mr. Speaker, this may be the accepted time; and the Legislature may be the one, beyond all others, to examine and settle this mighty question—but I am sure of this, Sir—our modesty does not bespeak our merit.

Considerations of respect, and a regard of the interest of our neighboring sister States, forbid our hasty or premature action on a question like this. Between friendly powers, a sense of international justice will ever restrain the one from adopting any measures, which may endanger the safety or property of the other, without advice and consultation. It was this principle, which but the other day, influenced the conduct of Ex-President Adams on the presentation to Congress of fifteen Quaker memorials for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Sir, Virginia approved and applauded the course of that distinguished individual, on the occasion referred to. But think you, Sir, that the District of Columbia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and N. Carolina will approve and applaud the rash and precipitate conduct of Virginia on the present occasion? Mr. Speaker, with the indiscretion of children, we are playing with torches and firebrands, either regardless or forgetful that magazines are under and around us. No measures of this high import should be agitated or discussed without the friendly understanding and co-operation of our sister States, similarly situated. Rash and intemperate debate—undigested and premature action, will not only blight our happiness, but the happiness of all around us.

Considerations of caution and prudence seem to have lost their influence with gentlemen, and neither admonition nor exhortations can stay them in their impetuous career. Time and means are out of the question—”now’s the day and now’s the hour.” The destinies of the republic hang upon the present decisions of this august and unrivaled body—procrastination is ruin. Is any representative so timid and undecided as to ask time for reflection and investigation? Sir, he is answered by a statistic. Is any member doubtful as to the views and sentiments of his constituents? He is charged with being regardless of the light of the age. “Something must be done” is the favorite exclamation of gentlemen, and they rest upon it in their flight as if it were perfection of argument, and summit of elegance. Mr. Speaker, permit me most respectfully to exhort gentlemen to limit their views within reasonable dimensions, lest in the ardor of excitement they go farther than reasonable men will sanction, or the better judgment of their own cooler moments will approve. Communities, like individuals, who run before their resources or abilities, find too late that they have made “more haste than speed”—”vaulting ambition o’erleaps itself, and falls on ‘tother side.” Gentlemen would do more than our utmost abilities can accomplish. If we effect during our present deliberations, the object which seems to meet the approbation of all, we will in my judgment have done enough; and put into requisition as much of the means and energy of the State, as is reasonable for the present. I allude to the removal of the free colored population, Sir. This design meets the approbation of all parties in the House at present; and, well, arranged [sic] and digested, will, I hope, be ultimately adopted. This object should claim the first consideration and regard of this Legislature. The free blacks comprise nearly one tenth of the entire black population of the State; it is the most depraved, dissolute, miserable, and dangerous portion of it—operates as the connecting link between the class of abandoned and irreclaimable whites, and the slaves themselves. With no regular occupations to restrain them from mischief they act as the procurers of news and the carriers of intelligence; and by their presence and association, are continually reminding the slave of the difference in their condition, and the bondage in which he lives. Now, Sir, if this legislature shall determine to remove the free colored population, it is an object, which cannot be effected under a period of ten years even in the opinion of those in favor of the highest rate of taxation for that object. During this period, it will absorb all the disposable means of the State; and financial arrangement for other purposes, must look beyond that time. Then, Sir, where is the reason or necessity for the impatience and precipitancy of gentlemen? We might legislate on the subject of slavery to our hearts’ content, but it would be useless and inoperative. Nay, worse: for, should it not meet with public approbation, you will have inflicted an injury, which time itself can never cure; and should the public mind be now prepared for such a measure, a few months delay will not change it, or impair the usefulness of subsequent legislation. We have already awakened the public mind to its interest in this subject, and I heartily agree with gentlemen that it will not soon slumber again. Gentlemen wish to ascertain the public will—but a little patience, Mr. Speaker, and they will hear it.

The great object of the gentleman from Albemarle, in proposing his substitute, is to allay the public apprehension of danger, and restore that sense of security that is lost—he professes to legislate for the benefit of those of us now on earth; and the necessity for immediate legislation is justified by a reference to the tragical history of August last, and the consequent imminent danger under which we live; and what are the measures proposed for the accomplishment of these present and pressing objects? It is, Sir, to make legislative enactments, which can, by no possibility, subserve the purpose of the present generation, but must operate only on our children and children’s children. We are told that dangers press close upon us—that an enemy is in our very households—that we sleep, insensible of the threatening horrors which surround us; and that, as friends, they must arouse us from our lethargy, and save us from impending ruin. Sir, we feel grateful—but we doubt whether a law, which is to commence its operations twenty-nine years from this time, will meet the demands of an emergency so pressing and importunate. We doubt, whether laws enacted for the preservation of the lives of succeeding generations, will avail much, in shielding us from the impending and almost immediate murder and massacre, of which we have heard so much. If, however, I were to estimate our dangers from the protection our friends offer us, and not from the accounts they give us of them, I should be inclined to indulge the hope, that our condition is not so desperate as they think it. If we may judge the opinions of the Physician from the medicines he administers, his account of the disease is rather high-wrought and exaggerated.

If, however, Mr. Speaker, gentlemen have really persuaded themselves that this prospective measure of emancipation will suppress, allay, or diminish the spirit of insubordination, which they contend characterizes our slave population at this time, I think they are mistaken. If the spirit of revolt and insurrection is indeed so deeply impressed upon their minds, as is thought and imitated, the measures proposed will neither satisfy nor propitiate it. It argues but little knowledge of human nature to suppose that we reconcile our generation to servitude and bondage by telling it that which is to follow shall be free. The very declaration encourages and augments the dangers of the present time. We give color and sanction to the forcible acquisition of that today, which we proclaim we ought in justice to yield tomorrow. If one insurrection has been sufficient to secure the liberty of succeeding generations, might it not be inferred that another would achieve the freedom of the present? I know, Sir, that such an inference would be delusive. I know that the result of any insurrection in Virginia for centuries to come, must be the extermination of its perpetrators; and it often repeated the total destruction and annihilation of the slave population. But, I speak of the influence of timid and temporizing measures on the minds and sentiments of the slaves themselves. One act of insubordination has created in the minds of the gentlemen, apprehensions of danger from the whole class of slaves now in existence—they propose by legislation to remove the danger. If the apprehension be well founded, the proposition of the gentleman from Albemarle cannot remove the danger. If it be not well founded, there is no necessity for legislation now.

This subject, Mr. Speaker, above all others, demands the most cautious legislation, the most vigilant circumspection at our hands. It should never appear that excitement or apprehension was the motive, which impelled us to action. If the slave be our enemy, let us not inspire him with confidence in his strength, by ready concessions, made the very moment that an insurrectionary spirit displays itself. If we do, Sir, all hope of quiet and security must be abandoned; one concession but lays the foundation of demand for another—partial insurrections will follow each other in quick succession; until the awful drama would be closed by sweeping from the earth a poor, ignorant, deluded, and misguided people. It is a subject that ought never to be publicly discussed, until the general sense of the community was strongly inclined to efficient action, and the time, the mode, and measure of such action generally understood and sanctioned. Above all, Sir, ought we never to excite in the minds of this ignorant class of our population, delusive hopes and expectation: You make them more unhappy, and ourselves less secure.

But, the proposition under discussion, and its agitation here, while it will—should it fall—have inspired such hopes and expectation—is liable in the event of its adoption, to even more serious objections. It proposes to emancipate all slaves born in Virginia, after the 4th of July 1840, at the ages of twenty-one, and eighteen—as they are males or females, unless they are carried beyond the limits of the State before they reach those ages. It leaves in absolute and unconditional slavery, all now living, or who may be born before that period. This, Sir, is the scheme which is to disarm our slave population of its dangers—its insubordinations—and its insurrectionary spirit; and also to restore an alarmed, disquieted, and unhappy community to the full enjoyment of safety, confidence and repose. These are the avowed objects of gentlemen—and I submit it to the wisdom of this body to determine, whether this measure will accomplish them. It proposes to reconcile our slaves to bondage—whose hearts, they inform us, are now burning with a desire of freedom—and how? By informing them that though the next generation may be free themselves need hope no melioration of their condition at our hand—that as they were born slaves, so they shall die slaves. And think you, Sir, that this will make the slave submissive, and the master safe? Far better were it that silence had sealed our lips. By the declaration, you admonish him that but one course is left open to his pursuit, and he will follow it with all the malevolent passions of his heart excited and inflamed—without reflection and regardless of consequences. This insurrectionary spirit in his heart will be fostered and cherished by the operation of other provisions of this scheme of emancipation. It will place by his side, day by day, the objects of your legislative boundary—those emancipated under your law—those on whom the boon of freedom has been conferred—not on account of service or merit—but because they were born on a different day from himself: they are of the same color and race with himself—they possess no better head nor heart—they have partaken through a series of years, of the same fare, treatment and occupation—they have enjoyed pleasure and sorrow together—nay, they are the offspring of one common mother—they are brothers, and love each other. In a few years, or months, or days, the period of their separation will arrive; the day on which, by the provisions of your law, the one may walk forth in the full and unrestrained enjoyment of freedom; but which brings no joy or gladness to the other—for it leaves him not only with the dark and gloomy prospect of perpetual bondage, but with affections ruptured, and attachments broken asunder. And is this the condition in which the gentleman from Albemarle would place a slave to teach him submission and make him harmless? Sir, it is by contrast that we measure and estimate all the blessings or miseries of life, and it is its prerogative to force the human mind, continually and unavoidably to consider and contemplate the objects contrasted. Put liberty and slavery side by side, and the beholder cannot refuse to contemplate them—nor to graduate the deformity of the one by the fair proportions of the other. Sir, neither painter nor sculptor could have succeeded in this matter more fortunately—I should say unfortunately—than the gentleman from Albemarle; and should the scheme which he has proposed to us, meet the approbation of his country, it remains for time to develop the consequences which will follow from it. To my mind, however, they are appalling and full of danger. That every slave born prior to the year 1840 would, under its operations, be ripe for revolt and insurrection, ought not I conceive to be doubted by those who think the slave population dangerous and restless now. But would this be the only consequence? Would the emancipated portion feel no interest in the fate of their captive brethren? Would the gift of liberty dissolve the affections of the heart, or weaken the influence of sympathy? Sir, the fair and legitimate answers to these questions would be very unfriendly to this scheme of emancipation. But the conduct of the emancipated portion need not be inferred from the scheme of emancipation. But the conduct of the emancipated portion need not be inferred from the known influence of human affections. Sir, it can be inferred from a yet stronger motive of human action—one, of which we have heard much during the present debate—self-preservation. The scheme proposes that any owner of a slave may avoid its operation by removing said slave beyond our limits at any time before he attains the designated age. And think you, Mr. Speaker, it will not be attempted? As sure as there is a spot on earth where the tread of the slave is tolerated, and the power of the master will enable him to reach it. And think you moreover, Sir, that this attempt will not be resisted? Just as sure as a love of freedom and the immediate prospect of attaining it will inflame the heart and inspire revolution. It requires but little forecast to tell the result of this dying and desperate struggle—the love of freedom will be armed with desperate struggle; the love of freedom will be armed with desperation—the love of property with overwhelming power: and thus the scheme of the estimable gent[leman] from Albemarle, would result in the annihilation of a people, whom his humanity prompted him to serve, and in the constant alarm and dismay of a community to whom, in the fullness of his benevolence, he would have extended peace, happiness, and repose.

The adoption of this measure would not only result in the dangers to which I have alluded, but would be productive of much pecuniary embarrassment and distress to a large portion of Eastern Virginia. I trust we are not a complaining people, nor are we wont to obtrude our private griefs upon the public attention—but our property is in jeopardy and we cannot hesitate. Sir, we are in debt; and professing to be an honest people, we are anxious to pay. Our slaves constitute the largest portion of our wealth, and by their value, regulate the price of nearly all the property we possess. Their value on the other hand, is regulated by the demand for it in the western markets; and any measures that should close those markets against us, would essentially impair our wealth and prosperity. I do not know that this suggestion is entitled to any consideration with those who think that slaves are not property; but with others, I hope it may suggest the propriety of prudence and circumspection in our legislation on the subject. Should the substitute now under consideration be adopted, it would not only confiscate property hereafter, to the amount of uncalculated millions, but, in my best judgment, would, in less than ten months, diminish the value of the existing slave property of this State by the amount of twenty-five millions of dollars. This estimate is founded on the assumption that the foreign demand for it does not enhance its value more than one-fourth—an estimate, too low, beyond question; for its value now is frequently affected nearly to that extent by fluctuations in the western markets. That the adoption of this scheme will result in the closure of every market in the Union against his property, will not, I presume, be controverted. We should have an assurance of it, derived not only from our unkind and unfriendly legislation in relation to it—in holding in utter disregard and contempt, their views, situation, and interests—but also in the consideration of self-preservation, which this measure, on our part, would naturally pronounce on theirs. Already, Sir, have suspicion and vigilance gone forth; and the conduct of Virginia is watched with cautious jealousy and apprehension by every state interested in this question. But, adopt this substitute, and it would be the signal for the enactment of prohibitory statutes in every State South or West of us. In Kentucky, it would be decisive of the question—on which, but the other day, her Senate divided equally—so, also, in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, &c. Thus, would the impolicy of our course be augmented and aggravated by the counteracting measures of wiser and more prudent states; and Virginia would be left to the unenviable environment of setting down with her borders, and regretting amidst her ruined fortunes, the folly and rashness of her course. Sir, particular allusion has been made in the course of this debate, to the county of Brunswick; and she has been admonished of the evils and dangers that attend her. We are told that the blacks outnumber us two to one. Gentlemen must then be aware, Sir, that our slaves constitute nearly all our wealth. It is true, and it is moreover true that we are in debt; and although either interest or attachment causes us to retain this property in preference to all other, we nevertheless yield it freely to the discharge of our just obligations, and always look to it as a capital stock, either to meet the exigencies of the present, or to enable us to provide for the reasonable demands of the future. If by rash and inconsiderate legislation, you destroy the value of this property, you leave the county of Brunswick, not only poor, but but many of its citizens would incur total bankruptcy and ruin. If our kind, good friends will withhold from us for a season this beneficent boon of emancipation, we will attempt in a measure to purge ourselves of this evil, and prepare by regular frustration for the reception of the signal blessings, which the philanthropy of the age proposes to confer upon us. Yes, Mr. Speaker, we will attempt to improve the hint we have received on the present occasion; and with the aid of Heaven, to dispose of a property, which not only makes for us “enemies in our households,” but guardians, in strangers to our interests. Should our exertions, however, fail, and we shall be unable, by any thing that we can do, to satisfy the demands of our friends, I trust, Sir, we shall be prepared to maintain our rights and property, against the exhortations of philanthropy, or the threats of power.

The gentleman from Albemarle has informed us that thousands of families are anxiously awaiting the decision of this question. I agree with him, Sir; but I differ with him as to the feelings and sentiments, which create their solicitude. He, Sir, thinks that our population will desert our territory, unless we adopt his substitute; I think we cannot adopt more effectual means to drive them away. It is in vain to suppose that we can separate man from his interest. He will pursue it, regardless of love of country or personal attachments. If you say slaves shall not be private property within your jurisdiction, you force from you every individual whose removal will enable him to avoid the operation of your law, and to enjoy, unmolested, the property which he feels to be his own. Love of country but rarely induces any man, willingly, to become a beggar—never, when his mind is deeply imbued with a sense of his country’s injustice.

Sir, if the adoption of this measure does not close every avenue of escape, you need not hope to retain your population. They will go, Sir, and will carry with them all which they value or hold dear on earth—property, affections, and love of country. They will leave behind them no prayers for the welfare of Virginia—but heartfelt and deep-tones maledictions on a government which would have wrestled from them the hard earnings of honest labor and made them beggars. They will leave behind them, moreover, a deserted and desolate country—or it may be, should the prohibition of slavery become general, they will leave you a country, with superadded legacy, of a black population—a land which echoes to the voice of the slave alone. Then, indeed, Sir, will the dreams of fancy, have become facts, and the poetic fictions of the present day, have become matter of history—and then may be sung, with all the solemnities of reality, mournful requiems over the departed glory of a people, who in the brighter days of our history, were esteemed lovers of their country.

Mr. Speaker, the gentlemen from Albemarle—the descendent of Jefferson—has thought proper to designate for the commencement of this scheme, the fourth of July. Sir, this is a glorious day; and dear to the memory and heart of every votary of freedom, and every lover of equal-handed justice and right. Its associations are of the most unmixed and unadulterated purity and sublimity and its recollection brings to the heart, no sentiment but gratitude, no emotions but thanksgiving. Sir, it with all its hallowed associations is recorded in heaven’s chancery. But should it be the pleasure of this body, in an evil hour, to connect with its history the adoption of this unjust, partial, tyrannical and monstrous measure, permit me, in the presence of my country, to offer a prayer to heaven, that “the recording Angel, as he writes it down, may drop a tear upon it, and blot it our forever.”

January 12, 1832

During a debate over slavery in the House of Delegates, James H. Gholson of Brunswick County compares enslavers right to the “increase” of their enslaved women to that of “the owner of brood mares” and noted that this “increase consists of much of our wealth.”

APA Citation:
Gholson, James. Speech by James H. Gholson to the House of Delegates (January 12, 1832). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Gholson, James. "Speech by James H. Gholson to the House of Delegates (January 12, 1832)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 25 May. 2024
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