This Day (Last Chance for Freedom Edition)

Published:January 11, 2016 by Brendan Wolfe

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On this day in 1832, a member of the General Assembly stood up and gave a long speech in favor of abolishing slavery in Virginia. He did this just five months or so after Nat Turner’s Rebellion, a slave revolt that left fifty-five white people dead in Southampton County. It truly was a remarkable moment in the history of the commonwealth, as our entry on the legislative debates makes clear. Here’s some context from the entry. Click on the link to read the entire speech.

On January 11, Samuel McDowell Moore, of Rockbridge County, rose to speak on behalf of abolition. 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.

In retrospect, it’s easy to assume that Nat Turner would only have hardened Virginia against abolition, but for a brief moment the opposite was true. Our entry on slavery at the University of Virginia even notes how Merritt Robinson, a member of the student-run Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, delivered an antislavery speech that year on the occasion of Jefferson’s birthday.

Robinson’s speech, which argued for the emancipation of Virginia slaves, was approved by the faculty chairman, George Tucker, who himself was ambivalent about slavery. A former congressman, Tucker had authored an antislavery novel, The Valley of Shenandoah (1824), and supported colonization before changing his mind and deciding that slavery would die out without the intervention of politicians. Unlike Tucker, however, the rest of the faculty strongly disapproved of Robinson’s speech and prohibited the Jefferson Society from ever again orating on any point of state or national controversy.

One historian as called the debates that year the “final and most brilliant of the Southern attempts to abolish slavery.” But, alas, they failed.

IMAGE: Woodcut depicting Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831) (University of Virginia Special Collections)