Virginia Debates Abolishing Slavery

By Nancy Spannaus

Jan. 24, 2022—The bloody retribution and intensified repression carried out against black Virginians after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831 are well-known. What most citizens are less aware of is the fact that this rebellion sparked a most extraordinary event: a debate in the Virginia House of Delegates over the winter of 1831-32 dedicated to the question of whether slavery should be abolished.

A contemporary depiction of the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion.

I was first made aware of this event through a comment by leading American System economist Henry C. Carey, who cited it in connection with the early 1830s shift in American politics in a pro-slavery direction. He believed that the defeat of the abolitionist forces at that convention was part of the crucial turning point in sending the nation into the Civil War.

So let’s take a look at another one of the surprising developments in the history of the persistence of American slavery.

The Setting

The spokesmen for abolition in Virginia came from a wide range of social groups. There were the religious opponents of slavery, comprised of groups of Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers; they had been campaigning to end it for decades. Then there were the small, generally non-slaveholding farmers from the Western part of the state, who understood slavery to be part and parcel of state’s oligarchical system, by which the planter class denied them representation in government and economic development. Women expressing fears of more violence from slave uprisings also petitioned the legislature asking for action.

Among the more surprising individuals supporting abolition was none other than the Virginia Governor, John Floyd, who wrote in his diary that “I will not rest until slavery is abolished in Virginia.” “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,”[1] he wrote. But he never even went public with this view.

Virginia Governor John Floyd

In a paper written for Norwich University in 2016, Philip E. Grathwol asserts that a majority of Virginians at the time wanted to see the end of slavery.[2] He also believes, along with Henry Carey, that the “Virginia Slave debates held in the wake of the Southampton uprising represented one of the last great opportunities to avoid armed conflict over the issue of slavery!”

Petitions pressing the debate were submitted to the legislature from 39 counties throughout Virginia. They ran the gamut from calls for gradual emancipation, to immediate abolition, recolonization, or even maintaining the status quo. Perhaps not surprisingly, virtually all the abolitionist petitions also included provisions for relocating freed blacks out of the state, as was being proposed by the American Colonization Society.[3]

But it was an open question whether the proposals contained in these petitions would even be debated. The preponderance of power (i.e., representation) in both the state senate and House of Delegates was held by representatives of the Tidewater elite, the center of slave plantations in the state, and they were dead set against even the hint of emancipation.

The Debate Begins

The issue of what legislation the legislature should vote on had been delegated to a select Committee, which was discussing options for the removal of blacks from the state, and the “gradual extinction of slavery.”

Upon hearing this, Tidewater delegate William Goode was alarmed. He proposed an amendment that would ban consideration of any proposal with the objective of manumission of the enslaved. He referred in particular to the petition submitted by the Charles City County Society of Friends, which demanded “some efficient system for the abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth and restoration of the African race to the inalienable rights of man.” Justice demands legislating that all persons born in Virginia be free, and that provision be made to form a colony for those who wish to emigrate,[4] the petition stated.

Goode also expressed grave concern that abolitionist proposals were now even being advocated in the major Richmond press. (See Richmond Enquirer, Jan. 7, 1832 )

Goode was countered by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who moved that Goode’s resolution be amended to call for legislation that would submit to a public vote a gradual emancipation and colonization plan. The result was to set up an open debate on emancipation itself, which lasted from Jan. 11 to Jan. 25, 1832.[5]

The Arguments

The abolitionist side was keynoted by Rockbridge delegate Samuel Moore, who unabashedly asserted that “the right to the enjoyment of liberty is one of those perfect, inherent and inalienable rights, which pertain to the whole human race.” Slave-masters try in vain to extinguish the drive for freedom, he said, through depriving the enslaved of education and imposing punishments. All they do is teach the slave the lesson of tyranny, and consequently degrade themselves. The drive for freedom is inherent in the human breast, and the enslaved Africans were human.

Moore charged that Virginia’s poverty was due to the prevalence of slavery, including its effect of imbuing the white population with the sense it was “above” productive labor. Slavery also undermines our security, he added, since any foe can easily enlist the enslaved to aid their cause. He concluded without a clear plan for abolition but an insistence that one must be found.[6]

A depiction of Virginian Edward Coles leaving the state with his slaves, whom he freed.

While Moore, like many other participants, chose to hold up Thomas Jefferson’s view of the evil and destructive nature of slavery in making his argument against it, the delegate never expressed any denigration of blacks’ innate abilities, as Jefferson infamously did.

Delegate James H. Gholson of Brunswick County then spoke for the pro-slavery faction, stressing the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of property rights. The slave population represents the greatest source of “wealth” in the Commonwealth, and can’t be taken away from us, he argued. He went on to praise slavery as a positive good for both the Commonwealth and the enslaved.

These themes were then taken up by many other delegates, alternating between scathing indictments of slavery’s destruction of morality and the economy, even a “cancer” consuming the health of the Old Dominion,[7] and craven defenses of the institution as a “humane” way of binding society together.

In the end, however, the abolitionists failed the leadership test. They were unwilling, or unable, to craft and put through a plan to abolish slavery, and consented to the conclusion of the select committee that it was “inexpedient for the present to make any legislative enactments for the abolition of slavery.” Instead, the Tidewater-dominated legislature doubled down on repression, passing legislation that forbade teaching blacks (both free and enslaved) to read and write, denied them the right to hold religious services at night without a white person present, and even penalized those who refused offers to be sent to Liberia.

Slave Auction in Virginia

A backlash also hit those who had championed abolition, as the pro-slavery elite increasingly emphasized their defense of the institution. They found a champion in Thomas Roderick Dew, a William & Mary professor, who published a “Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature” later in 1832. Dew’s book was widely read and had a major impact on the debate over the next decades, stoking Virginians’ illusions that they were on the right “moral” path in maintaining chattel slavery.

A National Shift

It would be a mistake to view the Virginia debate in isolation.  It occurred just as there was a national political shift toward support for the slave system, with President Jackson’s destruction of the American System policies of credit, protection of industry, and internal improvements. And as the broad support for some kind of abolition reflects, the moving force behind Jackson’s moves was not “the people,” but the London-linked U.S. financial establishment and Southern slavocracy, both of which were immeasurably strengthened by his actions.

Would it have been possible, even at this late event, for American System proponents to peacefully prevail over the British-backed pro-slavery forces?  That is a question I will explore through the eyes of one man who thought it was, Henry C. Carey, in my upcoming book.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics. 

[1] See https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-slavery-debate-of-1831-1832-the/#its1

[2] Grathwol, Philip E., “Nat Turner, The Virginia Slavery Debates, and the Path Toward Disunion,” capstone project, Norwich University, 2016, https://www.academia.edu/26777718/Nat_Turner_The_Virginia_Slavery_Debates_And_The_Path_Towards_Disunion?email_work_card=view-paper

[3] While the relocation idea is repulsive on its face, it reflected a wide span of motivations, which ranged from those who feared free blacks could never live well in a racist white society, to those who wanted to be rid of free blacks as they were a threat to their slave system. Many left the society when they met opposition to ending slavery in the United States among some leading members.

[4] See full text https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/petition-from-the-society-of-friends-charles-city-county-december-14-1831/#:~:text=In%20a%20petition%20to%20the,to%20them%2.

[5] An extensive summary of the debate and how it was set up can be found at https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/virginia-slavery-debate-of-1831-1832-the/#its1

[6] As most others in favor of abolition, he expressed support for blacks being subsidized to leave the state. His full speech can be found here https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/speech-by-samuel-mcdowell-moore-to-the-house-of-delegates-january-11-1832/

[7] See Dunn, Susan, Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, & the Decline of Virginia, Basic Books, 2007, p. 52.

(function() { window.mc4wp = window.mc4wp || { listeners: [], forms: { on: function(evt, cb) { window.mc4wp.listeners.push( { event : evt, callback: cb } ); } } } })();