"Can These Be The Sons of Their Fathers" The Defense of Slavery in Virginia, 1831-1832
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This study argues that the Virginia slavery debate of 1831-32 was an occasion when radical transformations in the nature of the proslavery argument occurred and where changing popular perceptions about the role of government can be seen. Since the Revolution, government in Virginia had been based upon the Lockean concept of the inviolable right of private property and of property's central relationship to government. During the slavery debate, when the initial emancipationist plan, which addressed the slaveholders' property rights, was dismissed as impractical, a more radical antislavery doctrine was proposed that challenged traditional beliefs concerning property and the function of government. This doctrine was the legal concept of eminent domain, the right of the state to take private property for public purposes without the consent of the owner. Arguing that slavery threatened public safety, emancipationists called on the state government to act within its eminent domain powers to confiscate this harmful species of property.
In the climate of increased public fear, brought on by the recent slave insurrection in Southampton County, this particular emancipationist argument subverted the traditional necessary evil justification for slavery. Defenders of slavery became impaled upon the horns of a dilemma. If they continued to acknowledge that slavery was evil, then they risked engendering the expansive government powers that the emancipationists advocated. If slavery could no longer be justified as a necessary evil, then upon what grounds must its defense now rest? In the face of this dilemma, defenders abandoned their traditional apologetic justification and instead advanced the idea of slavery as a "positive good."
- Masters Theses