On this day in 1820, a poet and first-time politician named Daniel Bryan cast the only vote against the Senate of Virginia’s bill of support for the Missouri Compromise. He then did something even more remarkable for a Virginian of his day: he delivered a long and impassioned speech against slavery. Here’s a description from the historian Eva Sheppard Wolf:
A lone antislavery voice stood against the majority in the Virginia Senate and refused to endorse the Virginia resolution on the Missouri question. Presaging Virginia’s own sectional strife, it was a westerner, state senator Daniel Bryan, of the Valley county of Rockingham, who ignored the constitutional arguments and attacked slavery on the basis of the American “political creed.” Bryan reverted to the rhetoric of an earlier era. He quoted the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed that the “law of nature gives no right to one man to sell another.” If the Constitution admitted slavery, it was only because the task of trying to forge a union in the wake of a destructive war had created an “unconquerable necessity … [that] compelled the Convention of 1787 to incorporate with the constitution those articles which pertain to slavery.” Bryan ended with a flourish, trying to sway his fellow Virginians by reminding them of their Revolutionary heritage. If Virginia were to endorse the extension of human bondage, “then let her drag from this magnificent dome—and conceal in its darkest vault—secure from contempt and mockery—the forgotten statue of her Washington! and then let her pile the vacant enclosure with manacles, scourges, and all implements of torture—the appropriate badges of slavery!”
Bryan’s speech was courageous by any standard, and it was reprinted in full over two issues of the Richmond Enquirer. As Wolf writes, however, “Virginians seem to have ignored Bryan’s remarks and offered no rejoinder.”
To read the speech yourself, download the Enquirer from February 15, 1820 [pdf] and from February 17 [pdf]. In both issues, the speech can be found on page 4.
PS: For no good reason, I suppose, I’m reminded of this classic moment from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), when the Messiah, played by the late Graham Chapman, is trying to convince his followers that they are all individuals. (Senator Bryan—the poet, of course—must be the lone dissenter.)
IMAGE: Slave Auction, Virginia by Lefevre J. Cranstone (Virginia Historical Society)