The Constitutional and Political History of the United States (Excerpts)

Dr. H. Von Holst and John J. Lalor

Citation Information:The Constitutional and Political History of the United States (Excerpts), Von Holst, Dr. H. and John J. Lalor. Chicago: Callaghan and Company, 1881. Microform collection. Yale University.

In the same year that Garrison raised the standard of unconditional abolitionism in Boston, an event happened in Virginia, which, from the opposite side, contributed powerfully to lead the slavery question over into its new stage of development. In August, 1831, an uprising of slaves, under the leadership of Nat. Turner, occurred in Southampton county. It was, however, quickly subdued, but cost the life of sixty-one white persons, mostly women and children. The excitement throughout the entire south, and especially in Virginia and the states contiguous to it, was out of all proportion with the number of the victims and the extent of the conspiracy. For a long time, the imagination of every idle boy was a power which could put broad tracts of country in the most frightful excitement. The weightiest voices permitted themselves to be carried away by intemperate advice and cruel threats. Governor Floyd advised the legislature to order all free persons of color out of the state, and the Richmond Whig declared that another uprising would deliver all the negroes to the sword.


It was owing to a favorable accident that at the same time the legislature of Virginia was forced by another cause to engage in an unreserved discussion of the slavery question. In the mountainous west of the state there were only few slaves. Hence there prevailed there, for a considerable time, great dissatisfaction because the quota of representation in the legislature was estimated according to the aggregate population. The plantation- owners of the eastern flat country, who constituted only a small minority of the white population, were by this means insured the rule of the country. The convention called to effect a timely transformation of the constitution, in the year 1829-1830, afforded the desired opportunity for an effort to break the preponderant power of this aristocracy. The delegates of the western and middle counties confidently hoped for victory. But the serried ranks of the planters, the bearers of the oldest and proudest names of Virginia, showed themselves in the end too strong for the innovators. They could not succeed even in having the white populaiton made the basis of representation for the house of representatives. In the compromise which was finally effected, a definite principle was wanting as a firm basis, and neither party was satisfied.

This disposition had not yet died out when Turner, by way of addition, cast an argument of fearful weight, based on the bloody scenes at Southampton into the scale of the defeated democrats. They now, in the session of 1831-1832, resumed the fight with redoubled energy, and extended their attack along the whole line of their enemies. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, a grandson of Jefferson, made a motion that a committee should be appointed to investigate the suitableness of a gradual emancipation of all slaves, and to report to the house on it. The debates lasted several weeks, and the whole Union followed them with riveted attention.


These debates, even up to and after the beginning of the civil war, remained a hobby with the partisans of the south in the north. They would fain have seen in them an irrefutable proof that Virginia was removed only one short step from the resolve to abolish slavery gradually, and they declared themselves convinced that it would have taken the step, during the next succeeding years, were it not that, in consequence of a righteous indignation at the abolition agitation, a revolution in public opinion big with fate was produced. But the assertion was repeated so frequently, that even other circles began to half believe in its correctness. But, in reality, it is in such glaring contradiction with the facts, that it is difficult to convince one’s self that we have to do with a misunderstanding of the facts, and not with a barefaced distortion of them. Not Virginia, but West Virginia, in which slavery dragged out only a wretched and artificial life, struggled with honest zeal for emancipation. Between the two halves of the state there existed a conflict of interest, and, therefore, also of views, which here clashed greatly one with the other. This conflict, even if it was for a time less apparent, never died out entirely, and it made itself felt in the most striking manner at the moment of the breach between the north and the south. The abolition agitation had neither now nor later exerted any influence on the decision of this question; it only served to help those slavocrats to somewhat greater clearness, who had hitherto very successfully deceived themselves with lies. This middle party decided the battle, and they decided it in favor of the slavocrats, which could not have been otherwise.


In those stormy debates in the legislature of Virginia, after Turner’s insurrection, Moore, one of the most fiery advocates of emancipation, declared it to be a peremptory demand of slavery that the “ignorance of his (the master’s) slaves” should be ‘as profound as possible.” That this was really systematically aimed at in the slave states has not been denied. The responsibility for this, also, it was sought to throw upon the abolitionists, through whose agitation alone these precautionary measures became necessary. How completely untenable this claim is, is shown by the superficial examination of Judge Stroud’s book, Sketch of the Slave Laws, which appeared in 1827. It is, however, unquestionable that about this time fresh measures were taken by legislation to brutalize the slaves, and it is certain that abolitionism contributed largely to bring this about. The abolitionists should be the last to hesitate to admit this, for nothing can bear louder or more ireffutable testimony for them than this effect of their agitation. In North Carolina, in 1830, it was forbidden to teach a slave to read, under penalty of $200. About the same time, a law of the same import was passed in Georgia, which, besides, threatened the circulation of incendiary documents with death. In 1833, the senate of South Carolina passed a bill of the following tenor: A white person who taught a slave or a free person of color to read or write, was fined $100 and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment; a free person of color, guilty of the same crime, was fined $50 and received 50 strokes of the lash; if a slave were the guilty party—(this was also applicable in the case of parents in relation to their children)—the only punishment was 50 strokes of the lash. No slave and no free person of color was henceforth to be permitted to preach or to deliver lectures. White persons were allowed to preach or lecture before slaves or free persons of color only in the presence of at least three white slaveholders.