VIRGINIA CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION AND SLAVERY DEBATE IN THE LEGISLATURE (1829-1830)
Chapter: “The Virginia Constitutional Convention: Southampton Insurrection. - Slavery Debate in the Legislature” by Henry Wilson, in History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 1872:
The utterances of slaveholders in the Virginia convention of 1829 -30, and in her legislature of 1831-32, were suggestive of far more than their immediate intent. They revealed, in language as strong and unequivocal as any ever used by Abolitionists, so freely charged with extravagance and exaggeration, the evils and appalling dangers of slavery. They revealed, too, both the sense of insecurity and alarm which pervaded society, and the desperation of a growing class determined to cling to the evil, however great, and to risk the consequences, however serious.
The convention was called for the revision of its constitution. Ex-Presidents Madison and Monroe, Chief Justice Marshall, and several eminent statesmen, were members. For years much dissatisfaction had existed in the western section of the State, where there were comparatively few slaves, with the basis of representation, which gave political power to a minority of the white people in the tide-water and eastern portions of the State. This minority, largely composed of slaveholders, was strong in talent, in wealth, and in social position.
The members from Western and Middle Virginia proposed to base representation on white population alone. The committee on the legislative department of the constitution, by a vote of thirteen to eleven, reported in favor of the white basis for the House, but by an equally divided vote rejected the proposition to adopt it for the Senate. An earnest and excited struggle commenced, and continued through several weeks. A proposition to base the Senate on federal numbers and the House on white population was also defeated by a similar vote. An arbitrary apportionment was finally adopted, and the representatives of the “old families," who were the special guardians of the slaveholding section, triumphed over those who had, at the opening of the convention, cherished high hopes of wresting political power from them. And so here, as was generally the case everywhere, in the conflicts between the supporters and opposers of the Slave Power, the latter were overborne.
In the month of August, 1831, the people of Virginia were startled by the Southampton insurrection. Its leader was Nat Turner, then a slave about thirty-one years of age. From childhood he seemed to have been the victim of superstition and fanaticism, and to have grown up in the belief that he was destined to accomplish some great purpose. Austere in life and manners, he impressed upon his personal associates the conviction that he was a prophet of the Lord, and that he was guided by Divine inspiration. In his confession he said: "On the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the spirit instantly appeared to me and said, ' The serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first, and by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign should appear I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.' On the appearance of the sign, which was to be the eclipse of the sun in February, 1831, he was to arise and slay his enemies. He states that immediately on the appearance of that sign the seal was removed from his lips, and he communicated the great work he had to do to his associates. The 4th of July was fixed upon as the day' for rising, but his mind was so affected by the magnitude of the undertaking that fie fell sick, and that time passed. “The sign appeared again," he said, and he then determined to wait no longer. The insurrection commenced on the night of the 21st of August by the massacre of his master, Mr. Joseph Travis, and his family. He and his associates had agreed that until they could arm and equip themselves and could raise a sufficient force, neither age nor sex should be spared; and this policy was invariably pursued. They proceeded from house to house, massacring the whites, until their numbers were increased to more than fifty, -all mounted and armed with guns and swords, axes and clubs. But the country was soon aroused, and they were met, fired upon, and dispersed. Deserted by his associates, Turner, after concealing himself for several weeks, was discovered, tried, and executed in November of that year. In this insurrection sixty-one white persons and more than a hundred slaves were killed or executed. The excitement in Virginia and throughout the South was intense. The "Richmond Whig” declared that another such insurrection would be followed by putting the whole black race to the sword. Portions of the community were thrown into panic, and the thrilling cry of the affrighted people, in peril of their lives and imploring protection, day after day filled the ears of the governor of that great commonwealth.
The legislature met early in December. In his message Governor Floyd called its attention to the Southampton insurrection. He stated that a “banditti of slaves," not exceeding at any time seventy in number, rose upon the defenceless inhabitants, and, under circumstances of the most " shocking and horrid barbarity," put to death sixty-one persons. He commended the promptitude and despatch with which the officers and militia had performed their duty, as also the cheerful alacrity of the people. He commended, too, the officers, soldiers, and sailors of the United States army and navy for their prompt and efficient action. Asserting that there was reason to believe that the spirit of insurrection was not confined to the slaves, he declared that there was too much cause for the suspicion that the plans of “treason, insurrection, and murder “ had been designed and" matured by unrestrained fanatics in some of the neighboring States." Asserting, too, that the most active among themselves in stirring up the spirit of revolt “were the negro preachers, he expressed the conviction that the public good required that they should be silenced. He urged a revision of the laws intended to preserve " in due subordination " the slave population, and suggested the idea that it would be indispensably necessary to remove the free people of color· from the State.
So much of the governor's message as related to the insurrection was referred to a committee. Mr. Summers of Western Virginia submitted a resolution, calling on the governor to lay before the legislature a copy of the correspondence between Governor Monroe and President Jefferson, in 1801, upon the subject of obtaining lands beyond the limits of the State, to which free persons of color might be removed. Petitions were presented, signed by slaveholders, praying the legislature for the removal of free negroes. Among these petitions was one from the Society of Friends, suggesting that legislative measures might be taken for the emancipation of slaves, and for their removal from the State. On the question of the reference of this petition to a special committee, a debate of great earnestness and significance arose. Mr. Roane, who had presented it, made a temperate argument in favor of its reception and reference. Mr. Moore said that the free negro population was a nuisance which the interests of the people required to be removed. But there was, he said, "another and greater nuisance, --slavery itself. He avowed that he was not one of those fanatics, always crying out against the horrors of slavery, but he thought it should now be considered by the legislature and by the people themselves. The reference of the petition to the committee was advocated by Mr. Brodnax, its chairman. The hearing of the petition, he said, did not imply that any legislation would be recommended for the emancipation of slaves; but he was opposed to allowing the nations to believe that "the State of Virginia was not willing even to think of an ultimate delivery from the greatest curse that God in his wrath ever inflicted upon a people." He emphatically declared that when men were forced to lock their doors at night, and open them in the morning to receive their servants to light their fires, with pistols in their hands, surely some measures to restore confidence and security were necessary. Under such circumstances “life became a burden, and it were better to seek a home in some distant realm, and leave the graves of their fathers, than endure so precarious a condition." "Is there a man," he asked, "in Virginia who does not lament that there ever was a slave in the State? And is there a man who considers the decay of our prosperity, and the retrograde movement of this once flourishing commonwealth, who does not attribute this to the pregnant cause of slavery? "
Mr. Bolling avowed himself in favor of considering the petition. “We talk of freedom," he said, " while slavery exists in the land, and speak with horror of the tyranny of the Turk; but we foster an evil which the best interests of the community require should be removed, which was deemed the bane of our happiness by the fathers of the commonwealth, and to which we trace the cause of the depression of Eastern Virginia. Every intelligent individual admits that slavery is the most pernicious of all the evils with which the body politic can be afflicted. By none is this position denied, if we except the erratic John Randolph, who goes about like a troubled spirit, malignantly assaulting every individual against whom his spleen is excited."
Mr. Chandler expressed his desire for the removal of the free blacks, and for a plan that might remove, at some future time, “the greatest curse that has ever been inflicted upon this State." He declared that he should look upon the day on which '' the deliverance of the Commonwealth from the burdens of slavery should be consummated as the most glorious in the annals of Virginia." William C. Rives was opposed to any plan of emancipation, because its agitation at that time would be “injudicious, if not perilous." The rejection of this petition of the Quakers was moved by Mr. Goode; but his motion was rejected by a vote of more than three to one and its reference to the special committee was carried.
A day or two afterwards Mr. Goode, who assumed the championship of the slaveholders, rose and asked the select committee what progress had been made, and when it intended to report. To this question the chairman replied that it was vigorously pursuing its investigation, and he hoped to report in a 'few days. Mr. Goode then said that he believed the course that had been taken would be productive of dangerous consequences; and he gave notice that he should, the next day, submit a resolution that would save the committee from further investigation. In accordance with this notice he introduced a resolution to discharge the committee, declaring that it was not expedient to legislate further on the subject of emancipation.
Thomas Jefferson Randolph, a grandson of Mr. Jefferson, moved to amend the resolution so as to instruct the committee to inquire into the expediency of submitting to a vote of the qualified electors the proposition of providing by law that the children of female slaves, born after the 4th of July, 1840, should become the property of the commonwealth, the males at the age of twenty-one, the females at the age of eighteen; then to be hired out until a sufficient sum be realized to defray the expense of their removal beyond the limits of the United States. But even this moderate proposition was resisted by Mr. Goode, who declared that the continuance of the discussion would prolong the anxieties of the citizens, and excite hopes in the colored population which must be disappointed. While Mr. Goode's resolution to discharge the committee was under consideration, the committee reported that it was inexpedient for the legislature to make any enactments for the abolition of slavery, and the question of its disposition was at once made the subject of discussion. Mr. Newton was in favor of laying the report of the committee on the table, and of taking up Mr. Randolph's amendment, which he denounced as a monstrous proposition that struck at the foundation of republican government. The motion to lay upon the table was then rejected, and Mr. Preston, afterward Secretary of the Navy under President Taylor, moved, as an amendment to the report, to strike out the word " inexpedient " and insert the word " expedient."
Then commenced an elaborate and exhaustive debate which continued without limitation or restriction for several weeks. It was one of the ablest, most eloquent, and brilliant debates that ever took place in the legislature of any of the States. Most of those who participated in it were young and rising men, who afterward achieved high positions and commanding influence. Many of them then clearly saw and vividly set forth the terrible evils which slavery had wrought, and the appalling difficulties and dangers that beset them. Yet, clearly as they saw them and vividly as they portrayed them, they not only failed to comprehend their full import, but they entirely failed in marking out the way of escape, and in devising the means for their extrication.
Mr. Moore said that the apostle might as well have closed his eyes upon the light which shone from heaven, or have turned a deaf ear to the voice from on high, as for the legislature to stifle the spirit of inquiry as to the best means of freeing Virginia from the curse of slavery, --"the severest calamity that has ever befallen any portion of the human race." Among the many evils he pointed out and forcibly portrayed was "its irresistible tendency to undermine and destroy everything like virtue and morality in the community." Asserting that ignorance was the inseparable companion of slavery, he declared it to be the purpose of the master to see that “the ignorance of his slaves shall be as profound as possible." Maintaining that this ignorance rendered the slave incapable of deciding between right and wrong, he affirmed that he was never actuated by those inspiring and ennobling motives that prompt the free to praiseworthy deeds; and that he was habituated from his infancy to sacrifice truth without remorse, to escape the punishment too apt to be inflicted. He averred that the impulses of passion were never restrained in him by the dread of infamy and disgrace. Referring to the declining prosperity of Virginia, he said that the State below tide-water wore “an appearance of almost utter desolation, distressing to the beholder”; that " tall and thick forests of pine, everywhere to be seen encroaching upon the once cultivated fields, cast a deep gloom over the land, which looked as: if nature mourned over the misfortunes of man." Maintaining that it was due to their character as a magnanimous people not to withhold from their negroes rights they had declared to be the common property of the human race, he would make a determined effort to free their Commonwealth of this element of disgrace and danger. He declared that. it mattered not whether oppression was exercised over few individuals or over millions; that "the autocrat of Russia was no more deserving of the name of tyrant for having sent his hordes to plant the blood-stained banner of despotism upon the walls of Warsaw, amid the ruins of all that was dear to freemen, than, was the petty tyrant in any other quarter, of the globe, who is equally regardless of the acknowledged rights of man."
Mr. Bolling declared that the advocates of slavery, while "drunk with prejudice," claimed to be sober, and sought to crown all its opponents with opprobrious epithets. He averred that slavery was “a great and appalling evil, a blighting and withering curse upon this land." “Many a brave man," he said, " who would face without shrinking the terrible array of battle, and with a fearless heart spur upon the cannon's mouth, has felt his blood in icy currents flow back upon its source, from the chilling, the fearful thought, that when he should return to the home he had left he should be greeted, not with the smile of joy and of welcome, but by the mangled corpses of his butchered family." He described the desolation that " met and fatigued the eye " in portions of Virginia lying below the mountains, and affirmed that there was no point to which they could turn where the great evil did not stare them in the face; and that it was a bone of contention between Eastern and Western Virginia, between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding States.
Briefly supporting his amendment, Mr. Randolph maintained that it was the dark, the appalling, and the despairing future that had awakened the public mind, rather than the Southampton insurrection. He asked whether silence would restore the death-like apathy of the negro's mind. It might be wise to let it sleep in its torpor; but "has not," he asked,” its dark chaos been illumined? Does it not move and feel and think? The hour of the eradication of the evil is advancing,--it must come. Whether it is effected by the energy of our own minds, or by the bloody scenes of Southampton and San Domingo, is a tale for future history."
Speaking for slavery, Mr. Gholson deprecated discussion, deeming it fraught with incalculable mischief. "We," he said" debate it, the press debates it, everybody debates it ; and all this is done as if the slaves around us had neither eyes nor ears." Maintaining, however, that discussion could now no longer lie avoided, he called upon gentlemen who regarded Mr. Randolph's proposition as "monstrous and unconstitutional" to ''meet it publicly, -- publicly to discuss it, publicly to expose it, and publicly to reject it." He thought his constituents would be filled with wonder at the light which illumined the present age, and with mortification at their present ignorance. They really believe, he said, that slaves are property, and that they belong to their masters. This opinion had been impressed upon their minds at quite a tender age; and in spite of the new lights, they believed that “by the Constitution of the United States and the laws of Virginia slaves were property, which dying men might bequeath, and living men might convey by deeds." His constituents had always considered 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 products, and the owner of female slaves to their increase."
He said that the wretched and misguided fanatic who led the Southampton massacre thought he saw the light of the age, but all his light and all his inspiration were shrouded in the darkness of the grave. He said that northern lights had appeared, and incendiary publications had cast their illuminating rays among them, to conduct the slave to massacre and bloodshed. He thought gentlemen who had drawn gloomy pictures of the poverty and thriftless agriculture of Virginia, were better poets than planters, and that there was more happiness and less misery among the slaves of Virginia than among the laboring poor of Europe or the servants of the North. He thought other Southern States would not applaud the rash and precipitate conduct of Virginia. They were engaged, he said, in a rash and intemperate debate. “With the indiscretion of children we are playing with torches and firebrands, either regardless or forgetful that magazines are under and around us ..... 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 out forever."
Mr. Rives said that he saw no occasion for excitement, and trusted as the debate progressed there would he found nothing to arouse or alarm. He thought the Southampton insurrection had brought nothing new to the minds of the people of Virginia, as it was but an earlier and more melancholy realization of their apprehensions. While he was not filled with apprehensions and alarms, he thought it was the part of wisdom to look ahead, and the duty of public men to scent out and ward off danger, however remote.
Mr. Brodnax addressed the House at great length. He thought the spirit of the age would not tolerate suppression, that slavery was the subject of grave consideration in all parts of the country, and that "the people all over the world are thinking about it, speaking about it, and writing about' it.” Although he maintained that slavery was "a mildew which has blighted every region it has touched, from the foundation of the world," he made the strange and preposterous affirmation that he was opposed to any system of emancipation, which interfered with private property, affected its value, or took a single slave from his master without his consent. Denouncing the moderate plan of emancipation proposed by Mr. Randolph as monstrous in its features and principles, he declared that owners of that kind of property would not and ought not to submit to such a law; that they would hurl from their stations their unfaithful representatives, who had contributed to bring such injustice upon them; and if their successors could effect no repeal, the people would burst into atoms the bonds that united Virginia in one political community.
“In listening," said Mr. Powell, “to an unrestrained discussion upon a subject on which we are accustomed to breathe our opinions with the lowest whisper, I feel that I am in a dream. But a short time ago the bare utterance of sentiments now listened to with the most profound attention would have been responded to by a simultaneous murmur of disapprobation." He warned the House that when the slaves should have become more enlightened and the love of freedom should have sprung up in their bosoms; that the tragic scenes, at Southampton might become a common occurrence, and in those convulsions and struggles their history might be written in characters of blood. Mr. Daniel remarked that it was an age of change and revolution, the fruitful period of conventions and speeches, but he had never expected to see the legislature of Virginia gravely debating the question whether or not the slaves they had inherited from their fathers were property.
Mr. Faulkner, Minister to France at the opening of the rebellion, addressed the House in favor of the gradual extinction of slavery. He said he was no enthusiast, no fanatic; he went for no agrarian laws, no confiscation of property, and no wild and chimerical schemes of abolition. But he went for such practical measures, sanctioned by the most illustrious names that adorned the annals of Virginia, as would rescue the State from the appalling catastrophe which in time must befall it.
He referred to the statements made by those opposed to emancipation, calculated to prejudice the public mind. “Our propositions," he said,” have been denounced as monstrous, novel, violent, and extraordinary. We have been represented as sounding a war-cry of insurrection, and as endangering the tranquility of this State by rash and violent schemes of legislation." He gloried in the privilege of participating in proceedings tending to help forward a revolution so grand and patriotic in its results. "If slavery," he said, "can be eradicated, in God's name let us get rid of it. If it cannot, let that melancholy fact be distinctly ascertained, and let those who, we have been told, are now awaiting with painful solicitude the result of your determinations, pack up their household goods and find among the luxuriant forests and prairies of the West that security and repose which their native land does not afford." He referred to a remark of a sagacious politician on the evening when the first debate sprung up on the presentation of the Quaker petition. "Why do-you gentlemen from the West," he asked, "suffer yourselves to be fanned into such a tempest of passion when the subject of slavery is introduced into the House? The time will come, and before long, when there will be no diversity of feeling or interest among us on that point, when we shall all equally represent a slaveholding interest." "It is," said Mr. Faulkner, "to arrest any such possible consequences to my country that I --one of the humblest, but not the least determined, of the Western delegation-have raised my voice for emancipation. Tax our lands, vilify our country, carry the sword of extermination through our now defenceless villages, but spare us, I implore you, --spare us the curse of slavery, that bitterest drop from the chalice of the destroying angel.'"
Slavery," he said, "it is admitted, is an evil; it is an institution which presses heavily against this best interests of the State. It banishes free white labor; it exterminates the mechanic, the artisan, the manufacturer. It deprives them of occupation; it converts the energy of a community into indolence, its power into imbecility, its efficiency into weakness. Sir, being thus injurious, have we not a right to demand its extermination? Shall society suffer that the landholder may continue to gather his virgintial crop of human flesh? What is his mere pecuniary claim compared with the great interests of the common weal? Must the country languish, droop, die, that the slaveholder may flourish? Shall all interests be subservient to one, all rights subordinate to slaveholding? Has not the mechanic, have not the middle classes their rights, --rights incompatible with the existence of slavery? "
He expressed his gratification that no gentleman had arisen in that hall as the avowed advocate of slavery, and declared that the day had gone by when such a voice could be listened to with patience, or even forbearance. He regretted, too, that any had entered the lists of discussion .n as its apologists, except on the ground of uncontrollable necessity. If there was anyone who believed in the harmless character of slavery, he requested him to compare the condition of that commonwealth, barren, desolate, and seared as it were by the avenging hand of Heaven, with the descriptions of the same country by those who first broke its virgin soil. To what is this ascribable? Alone to the withering and blasting effects 0f slavery. He avowed himself opposed to any plan of emancipation which was not mild, gradual, and prospective in its operation. Delicate and difficult as was the subject, he would still preach it. "Our security," he added, "requires it. In the language of the wise and prophetic Jefferson, you must approach it, you must hear it, and you must adopt some plan of emancipation, or worse will follow."
Mr. Marshall proposed such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as would give the power to Congress to appropriate money to aid the States. He would, by timely precautions, endeavor to " avert that portentous cloud which: already blackens the horizon, and which threatens at some future day to pour its fury on our heads." He thought the abolition of slavery was not desirable on account of the condition of the slave; "but it is ruinous to the whites,--retards improvement, roots out an industrious population, banishes the yeomanry of the country, and deprives the spinner, the weaver, the smith, the shoemaker, the carpenter, of employment and support. This evil admits of no remedy. It is increasing, and will continue to increase, until the whole State will be inundated with one black wave covering her whole extent, with a few white faces here and there floating on the surface."
Mr. Roane owned slaves, and valued them as highly as Mr. Gholson valued his women and children, which he had asserted were as much his property as his brood mares. He declared that he would never interfere with the just rights of property, but he was in favor of action, because delay brought danger, and he would not “halt and boggle and falter “while the country was " groaning and travailing and suffocating under the heaviest and blackest curse that ever afflicted freemen·."
Mr. Wood was opposed to touching the question of abolition, and he saw nothing in the Southampton insurrection calculated to inspire alarm or create distrust. He said if Virginia had been settled by the Puritans her condition might have been better without slavery, hut the early settlers of Virginia were English gentlemen, who came there not to devote themselves to lives of labor and self-denial, but for the purpose of enjoying the luxuries of the table, furnished alike by the forests and the waters. “The people of Virginia," he said,” did not vex themselves with the harassing cares of commerce, nor were they reduced to the necessity of labor. They devoted themselves to social intercourse, to the cultivation of elegant literature and fine oratory. In these they excelled, not only any race in this Union, but perhaps in the world."
These words of the boastful Virginian breathe a spirit and convey a sentiment which were not only common at the South, but more or less admitted and acquiesced in at the North. The chivalry, generosity; refinement, and culture of Southerners were always claimed and often urged as at least some compensation for their servile system, and for their other less worthy qualities. But the facts never justified such pretensions. In literature their authors were few, and at best of inferior rank; while the meagerness of their contributions to science, letters, and the arts has been generally conceded. From their pretensions to superior generosity and refinement the war tore off the mask, and revealed the fact that all such assumptions were shams, or, at best, most glaringly superficial.
Mr. Preston, who had moved to amend the resolution of the committee so that it would declare that it was “expedient “to act, spoke eloquently in support of the position he had assumed. He admitted that for two hundred years the thoughts, words, and acts of Virginia had been suppressed, that their mouths had been closed, and that all investigations in relation to slavery had been stifled. He thanked God that the spell as broken, that the scales had fallen from their eyes, and that he was at liberty to speak every opinion he entertained. He admitted that no emancipation could take place then, or in the future, without an infringement upon the rights of property, in those rights were, as was assumed," superior to all law, and, above all necessity." He said unhesitatingly that if the slaves were white men he should rejoice in a revolution, as it was their color and difference of race which made such an idea appalling. Referring to the declaration of Mr. Gholson that much of the wealth of Eastern Virginia was in the increase of their slaves, he exclaimed: “In the name of God, has it come to this? Does the wealth and the beauty and the chivalry of Virginia derive its support and owe its existence to the increase of slaves? "
The policy of emancipation was denounced by Mr. Knox, and he declared that it was susceptible of demonstration, that to slavery, as it existed in Virginia, they might" trace the high and elevated character which she has heretofore sustained “; and he expressed the opinion that " its continued existence is indispensably requisite, in order to preserve the forms of a republican government."
Mr. Summers of Western Virginia made a very able speech against slavery west of the Blue Ridge. He thought, if that section of Virginia were a separate and independent State, she would annihilate slavery at a blow. "We do not," he said, " desire that the hardy and independent tenantry of our country should be made to give way to those who have no other rule than to work as little and waste as much as they can, whose only impulse is fear, and whose only interest is to avoid the punishment of their employers. We cannot desire to see our mountains blackened with the slave, or that the fresh grass of our valley should wither beneath his tread." He would not advert to the great principles of eternal justice, that regarded with equal beneficence all persons, without distinction of color or condition ; but he wished to better their own condition, "to arrest the desolating scourge of our country, to save from after ages the accumulated ills of a then hopeless and remediless disease." He maintained that men, to remain slaves, must remain ignorant; that necessity had placed on the statute--books of Virginia "laws to close every avenue· of knowledge to the wretched negro, to extiuguish that little spark that glimmers in his bosom, and which ages of degradation have not wholly destroyed." The antiquary in his researches, he feared, would not understand the necessity which justified them ''in attempting to annihilate the mind of a portion of our race, and to withdraw from them the knowledge of their own immortality and destiny beyond the grave. The love of liberty could not be eradicated by oppression. It was a scintillation struck from the eternal rock of being, and could be extinguished only in the tomb." He closed with expressing the hope that by emancipation they should save their posterity from: the wretched inheritance and calamity of slavery, receive the smile of Heaven and the blessing of their children's children, and that after time would trace the origin of American abolition to that debate.
Mr. Burr denied the sinfulness of slavery; said that there were more than forty millions of slaves at the beginning of the Christian era, and that Christ saw them in their wretchedness, and, although he came into the world to rebuke sin, he did not condemn slaveholding; He reminded the representatives of Western Virginia that the dark wave of slavery which haunted their imaginations had been rolling for centuries against the mountains, and yet had "only cast a little spray beyond. The foot of the negro delights not in the dew of the mountain grass. He is the child of the sandy desert. The burning sun gives him life and vigor, and his step is most joyous on the arid plains."
Of this system, thus declared not to be "sinful," Mr. Berry said that it was a cancer on the body politic, as certain, steady, and fatal in its progress as any cancer on the physical system. Of the slaves he said that they had as far as possible closed " every avenue by which light might enter their minds,'' and that they had to go only one step farther " to extinguish the capacity to see the light," to reduce them to the level of the beasts of the field; and, he added, " I am not certain that we would not do it, if we could find out the necessary process, and that under the plea of necessity:" He predicted that the slaves would yet assert their liberty, and that " a death-struggle must come between the two classes, in which one or the other will be extinguished forever." This “death-struggle," of which the eloquent Virginian spoke, was his form of characterizing the “irrepressible conflict." It did come in less than one generation, though not in the form here shadowed forth. In it, however, the slave system, and not one of the contestant classes, went down.
But the most eloquent and effective speech of this great debate was made by James McDowell, afterward governor of the State and a representative in Congress. It was a masterly portrayal of the ruin and demoralization "wrought by slavery in his native State. Its wonderful and almost magical effect upon the convention is a matter of tradition in Virginia to this day. In describing the panic and terror wrought by the Southampton insurrection, and in reply to a member who had characterized it as a petty affair, he declared that it drove families from their homes, assembled women and children in crowds, in every condition of weakness and infirmity, and every suffering that want and terror could inflict, to escape the terrible dread of domestic assassination. " Was that," he asked, " a ' petty affair,' which erected a peaceful and confiding portion of the State into a military camp; which outlawed from pity the unfortunate beings whose brothers had offended; which barred every door, penetrated every bosom with fear or suspicion; which so banished every sense of security from every man's dwelling, that, let but a hoof or horn break upon the silence of the night, and an ac11ing throb would be driven to the heart? The husband would look to his weapon, and the mother would shudder, and weep upon her cradle! Was it the fear of Nat Turner and his deluded, drunken handful of followers, which produced such effects? Was it this that induced distant counties, where the very name of Southampton was strange, to arm and equip for a struggle? No, sir, it was the suspicion eternally attached to the slave himself, -- a suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, that the same bloody deed might be acted over at any time and in any place, that the materials for it were spread through the land, and were always ready for a like explosion."
Not only is there the testimony of the great debate, but the press of the State was equally pronounced in its assertion of the evils and dangers of their system of slavery. The " Richmond Inquirer,'' the leading paper of the State and of the whole South, said on the 7th of January, 1832: "It is probable, from what we hear, that the committee on the colored population will report some plan for getting rid of the free people of color. But is that all that can be done? Are we to forever suffer the greatest evil that can scourge our land, not only to remain, but to increase in its dimensions? ‘We may shut our eyes and avert our faces if we will,' writes an eloquent South Carolinian, returning from the North a few weeks ago, ' but then it is the dark and growing evil at our doors; and meet the question we must at no distant day. God only knows what it is the part of wise men to do on this momentous and appalling subject. But something ought to be done. Means, sure but gradual, systematic but discreet, ought to be adopted for reducing this mass of evil which is pressing upon the South, and which will press upon her the more heavily the longer it is put off. We ought not to shut our eyes nor avert our faces. And although we speak almost without hope that the committee or the legislature will do anything at the present session to meet the question, yet we say now, in the utmost sincerity of our hearts, that our wisest men cannot give too much of their attention to this subject, nor can they give it too soon.' "
Seldom, if ever, have the evils of slavery been more graphically, not to say terrifically, portrayed, than in this remarkable debate and discussion. These men spoke and wrote of what they knew. They described dangers and difficulties not at a distance, but at home, in which they were involved, and before which they trembled. None can read their words, even at this day, without feelings of sympathy and pity at their helpless and almost hopeless condition. For through the whole debate, even in the remarks of the most earnest and advanced, there was manifested an inability to grapple successfully with a system, not only enshrined in their laws, but inwrought into their whole social life.
This movement, however, though begun under auspices so favorable and betokening success, and though thus ably sustained in the halls of debate and by the press, came to nothing. Looking to ultimate emancipation and expatriation, however remote and· gradual, it alarmed the slaveholding aristocracy which had so long ruled Virginia, arid which at once took the alarm. Discussion, sternly frowned upon, ceased. Most of the men, prominent in this debate, were either placed under the ban of the Slave Power, or were compelled to placate it by succumbing to its behests, disowning their own words, and becoming the active agents in defending what they once so severely condemned.
Where, it may be asked, in the fiercest invectives, in the most impassioned appeals and warnings, or in the wildest ravings of any class of Abolitionists, can there be found any arraignment of the system of slavery more fearful, any confessions more damaging, or any condemnation more crushing, than can be gathered from the words of this debate, carried on by Southern men on Southern soil? And where can be found more mournful evidence, plentiful as it is, of the terrible power embodied in the slave system, which could convert, as it soon did, such men, with talents and position so commanding, and with such admissions and confessions on their lips, into strenuous advocates and sturdy defenders of what they knew to be so full of guilt and harm to the individual, -- of detriment and danger to the State?
Source: Wilson, Henry, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1872, 189-207.