Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832. By Alison Goodyear Freehling. Baton Rouge and Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
In Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832, Alison Goodyear Freehling discusses Virginia’s slow movement toward both the splintering of the state and secession. Arguing that slavery could not live alongside democracy, Freehling shows how demands for white male suffrage and equality threatened the eastern slaveholders to the point that they denied equal representation until the eve of the Civil War. By that time, western Virginians felt so persecuted and had identified with the North for so long that they became a new pro-Union state. Thomas Jefferson’s dreams of a grand Commonwealth and a peaceful evolution towards emancipation were shattered.
Freehling focuses her thesis on the slavery debates of 1831-1832. The debates were a response to Nat Turner’s rebellion, which the author succinctly summarizes in her first chapter. The author then backtracks in her second chapter to a discussion of the people and land of Virginia. The major slave-owning planters resided mostly in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions in the eastern part of Virginia, whereas the Valley and Trans-Allegheny areas housed more non-slaveholders, though the Valley was more of a middle ground between the western and eastern parts.
The state constitution in 1776 was extremely undemocratic. A white male had to own one hundred acres or twenty-five acres with a house in order to vote. Furthermore, the government based representation on equal county divisions, meaning that the growing western region lacked fair representation.
In 1828, the people of Virginia voted overwhelmingly for a constitutional convention. That meeting, which lasted from 1828 to 1829, focused largely on the question of whether whites only should be counted for representation or whether there should be a mixed basis, which would count slaves. Eastern conservatives argued that an elite minority must have power in order to protect slavery and were able to maintain their political ascendancy in the 1830 constitution.
Freehling moves from the debates over representation and suffrage to a discussion of multiple emancipation plans from St. George Tucker to Thomas Jefferson. None of the anti-slavery Virginians, and Freehling argues that there were many, favored immediate abolition and the incorporation of African Americans into white society. Rather, Virginians favored colonization, especially after the Turner rebellion.
During the 1831-1832 debates, the issue of slavery played a very important role. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, grandson of the esteemed Monticello resident, lit a fuse by proposing gradual emancipation for all slaves born after a certain date. The debate moved back and forth with both sides declaring slavery an evil and agreeing that slavery would eventually end in Virginia. The clash revolved around the means. Conservatives argued that slavery would die a natural death; westerners largely favored gradual emancipation followed by colonization. In the end, they voted to indefinitely postpone the discussion.
Colonization faced its own difficulties. White Virginians wanted free blacks gone for multiple reasons. Whites viewed them as a potential source of uprisings as well as unwanted employment competition. Colonization garnered a great deal of support, but many Virginians drew the line at forcing free blacks to leave. The state government passed a “Police Bill” that infringed upon free black civil rights in order to compel colonization, but no free blacks were willing to leave.
As the country moved closer to Civil War, Virginia still remained incapable of resolving her slavery problem. In 1860, following Lincoln’s election, the state moved towards secession, and West Virginians decided to form their own state. The author convincingly argues that West Virginians favored such an extreme action due to a long history of resentment and a greater identification with the North, not a position on slavery. In the end, east Virginia’s long fight to protect slavery from white democracy caused the very thing they feared; West Virginia joined with Northerners in the fight against the “peculiar institution.”
This work is extremely well-written. It proves to be very readable and provides excellent maps and graphs that illustrate the author’s arguments well. Freehling’s extensive research shines through, and her appendixes are admirable. Though the work is probably too in depth for someone in search of a broader view of Virginia’s long road to secession and dissolution, it is easily recommendable to scholars of the antebellum era, Virginian history and political science.
Meredith May Texas Christian University
Freehling, Allison Goodyear. Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
In 1832, prompted by the turmoil of Nat Turner’s slave revolt, the Virginia state legislature debated the future course of slavery in the state. For the first time in Virginia history, the practice of slavery became the subject of open public discourse and eventual emancipation became a distinct possibility in the largest slaveholding state in the nation. Although delegates rejected proposals for the immediate abolition of slavery, demands for public safety and fears of further insurrections forced representatives to endorse the eventual extinction of the “peculiar institution.” The Virginia debate over slavery has long been recognized by historians to be a major turning point in the antebellum sectional struggle and is often presented as the event which drove Virginians to defend slavery as a “positive good” rather than a “necessary evil,” but Allison Goodyear Freehling’s Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832 proves the actual consequences of the debate to be far more complex. In her preface, Freehling states that, “In providing a more detailed look at this dramatic episode in Virginia history, I hope to demonstrate that the 1832 Virginia slavery debate was not an isolated aberration, but rather part of an ongoing contest between a white community irrepressibly divided by slavery” (xii). As Freehling observes, the practice of slavery in Virginia intensified geographic divisions in the state, as the eastern Tidewater and Piedmont portions of the state contained the largest number of slaves, especially the “Southside” area next to North Carolina. Beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley, the slave population declined drastically and was virtually non-existent west of the Allegany Mountains. The western counties of the state shared culture and trade interests with the free states of the Old Northwest rather than with eastern counties of the state, and this division only intensified during the antebellum period despite the efforts of political leaders to use internal improvements to unite the state economically.
Freehling’s study traces the dispute over slavery within the state to the adoption of the 1776 Virginia state constitution, which provided disproportionate representation to Tidewater slaveholders and entailed strict landholding requirements for suffrage. Repeated efforts to gain democratic reform and equal representation based on the white population alone resulted in the 1829 constitutional convention, which slightly increased western influence but did not permit the suffrage and equal representation demanded by western politicians. Freehling speculates that if complete democratic reform had occurred, it is likely that some form of emancipation would have passed during the 1832 debate. The agitation between the western farmers and eastern planters continued until the Civil War, during which the western counties remained loyal to the Union and seceded to form the new state of West Virginia.
Freehling’s discussion of the slavery debate is revealing. While often presented as a division between eastern and western counties, many urban residents and proponents of industrialization in the East supported gradual emancipation. Interestingly, each proposal for emancipation championed some form of colonization of freed slaves either to the African nation of Liberia or the Caribbean island of Haiti, as even ardent Virginia abolitionists feared the consequences of a racially integrated society. Despite limited state funding, colonization efforts failed due to the high expense of transport and a noted lack of interest from the free black population. Equally enlightening is Freehling’s analysis of the pro-slavery argument. Most conservative defenders of slavery, including Thomas R. Dew, author of the pro-slavery treatise Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature, argued that natural causes would eventually rid the state of slavery as tobacco cultivation faded from the state and demand for slave labor increased in the Cotton states. Dew, an outspoken critic of colonization, believed that as time progressed large numbers of slaves would be sold to the Deep South, and Virginia would more closely resemble the border slave states of Delaware and Maryland. The secession crisis of 1861 occurred before Dew’s theory could be tested, and the dilemma of slavery in the state would finally be resolved by Union victory in the Civil War. In conclusion, Drift Toward Dissolution is a worthwhile read for scholars, but far too detailed for use in the undergraduate classroom.
Texas Christian University Steven Nathaniel Dossman
Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832. By Alison Goodyear Freehling, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (1982), 306 pgs.
Histories of secession debates too often succumb to overly generalized pictures of states driven by opposite extremes – either inexorably or only slowly and gradually toward separation. Alison Goodyear Freehling provides a refreshingly detailed and nuanced examination of Virginia’s road to secession, and of the uniqueness of West Virginia’s secession from the state at large. Centering her work around the 1832 slavery debates that followed Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Freehling proposes that such debate “was not an isolated aberration, but rather part of an ongoing contest between a white community irrepressibly divided by slavery.” (xii)
Freehling opens with a rather standard recitation of the events surrounding Nat Turner’s slave revolt. More interestingly, however, she demonstrates the state’s existing differences in that the majority of post-revolt applications for arms came from the state’s slaveholding regions, where whites more acutely feared black militancy. This leads naturally into her generalized descriptions of Virginia’s varied regions, and the resultant variations on socio-economic culture within the state. The Tidewater and Piedmont planters engaged in a form of old Virginia aristocracy that linked them in many ways to the general culture of the Old South. By stark contrast, the western portion of the state identified more readily with nonslaveholding states to the north than with their eastern fellow Virginians; this makes sense considering the region’s physical incompatibility with a slave-based economy. The valley between east and west Virginia stood as a geographical and cultural middle ground, mediating between the two distinct societies well into the 19th Century.
Conflict first arose, however, with the population and economic growth of the nonslaveholding regions of Virginia. The state’s original constitution provided an inordinate amount of political representation and power to slaveholders, a condition that despite occasional attempts for reform existed well into the era of Jacksonian democracy. In 1828, voters finally approved a constitutional convention, although the returns from this election also exhibited the fissures within the state’s borders as slaveholders overwhelmingly disapproved, and nonslaveholders overwhelmingly approved, the convention. This convention gave voice to two prominent issues that plagued the state continually and contributed greatly to its later split. Slaveholders promoted reapportionment only so long as slaves were counted as people or property, thus preserving a preponderance of political power for those in the east. Western reformers urged reapportionment only on white voters, but hoped to extend the franchise well beyond its current landed requirements. Slaveholders feared that majority rule of this sort would give nonslaveholders the power to legislate abolition, and initially succeeded in retaining a majority of the political say in Virginia’s 1830 constitution.
Freehling points out that this convention, however, had opened the door to public discourse on the issue of emancipation. She backtracks to trace the development of this debate from St. George Tucker through Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph. All promoted some sort of plan for the removal of free blacks from Virginia’s borders. In debate in the Virginia House Assembly, delegates narrowly defeated a Randolph’s proposal for emancipation and colonization, although Freehling interestingly asserts that if “the house had been apportioned on 1830 rather than 1820 white population, legislators would have come within one vote” (162) of passing the measure. Despite the hopes of abolitionist whites, free blacks proved irresistibly opposed to any such plans and unintentionally forced Virginia to confront the issue of slavery head-on – the issue simply would not die a natural death as many Virginian politicians hoped.
Again in 1850, voters approved a constitutional convention where the delegates again considered representation and slavery. Despite the growing crisis in national politics, Virginians again decided on piecemeal compromise. In Freehling’s unflinching estimation, “Contradiction, irresolution, and drift continued to mark Virginia’s course.” (249) Lincoln’s election triggered the state’s vote on secession, which was dominated by the Piedmont and Tidewater regions’ identification with the Old South and the Valley’s opposition to federal coercion. Freehling is careful to point out that although the western delegates declared their independence from Virginia proper, they did not do so out of abolitionist sympathies, per se – they did not write post-nati emancipation into the West Virginia state constitution until compelled to do so by the U.S. Senate in 1861. She thus concludes, convincingly, that although “slavery proved incompatible with state integrity,” both Virginias generally “preferred compromise to decision.” (262)
Based on extensive reading of the political record and rich analysis of demographic data (provided in an extremely useful appendix), Freehling exhibits through the historical and cultural record long-standing divisions within Virginia’s borders. She thoughtfully and carefully lays out a well-reasoned case, one that should interest scholars and students alike, that Virginia’s secession and split represented the culmination of historic and too-long ignored endogenous tensions.
Matthew A. McNiece
Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832. By Alison Goodyear Freehling. (Baton Rouge and Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.) Pp. xiv, 306.
Alison Goodyear Freehling presents the revisionist view and the answer to the traditional 1943 work of Joseph C. Robert in The Road to Monticello in her work Drift Towards Dissolution. She tells the story of not only the debate itself, but also the social, economic, and political impact it had on Virginia society. She presents evidence in her argument to support her thesis that the debate was not an isolated incident as historians have portrayed it in the past. The debate mirrored a bigger part of Virginia society as a whole and a conflict that existed within Virginia since the Revolutionary period. She contends there was an ongoing conflict over the issue of slavery between the eastern and western regions of the state throughout the Revolutionary period and through the antebellum South up to the Civil War.
Freehling asserts that the debates that took place in the Virginia legislature in the early weeks of January 1832 were a direct reaction to the Nat Turner slave insurrection. After the insurrection on August 23, 1831, a public debate was provoked on the issue of emancipation. The House of Delegates debated for two weeks with open doors about the future of slavery in Virginia. The debates explored the idea of slavery as the foundation of the political, social, and economic order in Virginia. These debates led to public assaults on slavery and demands for abolition. The headline of every major newspaper covered the ongoing debate. The significance of this ongoing debate was the fact that Virginia was the nations largest slaveholding state and carried great influence and prestige both socially and politically since the time of the Revolution.
In her argument that the debates were not an isolated incident, but an ongoing battle between the white population, she contends democratic reformers had always challenged the aristocratic conservatives for control of Virginia s government. One side favored majority rule over slavery and addressed the question of whether or not majority rule was compatible with slavery. The conservative side believed it to be necessary to deny white men equal political and suffrage if it meant protecting the institution of slavery forever.
After Nat Turner, the entire state was traumatized and the non-slaveholding western legislators proposed emancipation. West of the Blue Ridge, abolition was more widespread. The eastern legislators held a majority in the house and remained the strong supporters of slavery. But within the eastern bloc of voters there existed a faction who supported white-based representation in 1829 and also favored the immediate passage future emancipation in 1832. These factions were primarily centered in western Piedmont and the major Tidewater cities and consisted of non-slaveholding urban whites.
After 1832, the public demand for abolition subsided substantially in the eastern region of the Blue Ridge and a more conservative position was adopted politically. However, resentment began escalating in the panhandle and northwest regions by whites that became tired of slaveholder hegemony. This was not a rigid east verses west disagreement that was magically resolved in 1832, as the traditionalist literature had argued. It became a continuing phenomenon that represented the inability of either side to actually win the battle.
In 1832, the House of Delegates rejected immediate emancipation legislation, but the element in the debates that has been ignored was the controlling coalition of antislavery delegates who rejected perpetual slavery and approved a declaration of future abolition once the public opinion would concur with the idea. The anti-slavery compromise was simply a temporary fix to the ongoing problem and the public kept the proclamation of slavery as an evil.
When examining Thomas R. Dew's Review of the Debate in Virginia Legislature published shortly after the debates, Freehling addresses his assumption that slavery in Virginia would slowly disappear and his encouragement of Virginia to develop into a urban-industrial society much like that of the free North. He contended such a process would make slave labor increasingly unprofitable and eventually rid Virginia of both slaves and blacks. This is proof, she argues, that Virginia remained a house divided on the issue of slavery, not a closed pro-slavery society as the traditionalist contend. Though after 1832, the legilature never again voted on the issue of emancipation, it did continue to debate such issues as representation, suffrage, and taxation, all issues that involved the fate of slavery.
Up until 1861, the white population in Virginia compromised and postponed the question of slavery in order to preserve the commonwealth, but at that point the tenuous connection that linked slaveholding and non-slaveholding regions together shattered.
Freehling s argument goes against everything Robert s maintained in
his work. He took the position that after the slave debates, slavery was
considered a positive good and the discussion was over. Slavery moved from
Thomas Jefferson s Monticello southward to John C. Calhoun s South Carolina
and eventually to William L. Yancey s Montgomery.
Freehling answers to this assumption Virginians of all persuasions on slavery would have stoutly denied historians latter-day view that the 1831-1832 house turned its back on Jefferson s dream of gradual emancipation and embraced instead the pro-slavery philosophy of John C. Calhoun and the Deep South. (p. 166)
Freehling is zealous in her revisionist view of what was thought to
be the point when Virginia turned away from Jefferson s visions of eventual
emancipation. However, the rhetoric she used to support her argument on
the outcome of the debates is far too vague and could be interpreted in
other fashions. Even with her perspective sitting a little too far on the
revisionist side, she does make some valid points. Her research is thorough
but her interpretation is a bit too broad. However, taken in conjunction
with Road to Monticello there is now a more complete historiography
of the debates and new questions have been raised as to the slave issue
in antebellum Virginia.
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