Considering William and Mary's History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas Roderick Dew

By Brophy, Alfred L. | The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, April 2008 | Go to article overview
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Considering William and Mary's History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas Roderick Dew

Brophy, Alfred L., The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal


Amidst the recent apologies for slavery from the legislatures of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Alabama, New Jersey, and Florida, there is significant controversy over the wisdom of investigations of institutions' connections to slavery and apologies for those connections.1 The divide over attitudes toward apologies falls along racial lines. This Article briefly looks to the controversy on both sides of the apology debates.

Among those questions about investigations of the past, universities occupy a special place. Efforts at recovery of their connections to slavery include a study released by graduate students at Yale University in 2001, 2 a report by Brown University's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice,3 and the University of Virginia 's Board of Visitors ' spring 2007 apology for that institution 's connections to slavery.4

These efforts lead to a question about whether other schools ought to consider self-investigations. The College of William and Mary is a particularly good place to ask such questions. This Article focuses on Thomas R. Dew, first a professor, then president at William and Mary from 1828 to his early death in 1846. Dew is the author of Review of the Debates in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832, one of the most reprinted arguments on slavery in the years leading into the Civil War. He is also the author of one of the most comprehensive and important histories published in the United States in the nineteenth century, A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of the Ancient and Modern Nations. ThroughDew we can gauge the intellectual connections to slavery, and then ask the important question: what - if anything - is an appropriate institutional response today? We can use Dew's thought to begin a discussion of the virtues and pitfalls of apologies and to assess the value of talk of the connections to the past.


In 1836, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, recently appointed professor of law at William and Mary, published the novel George Balcombe to much acclaim.5 It tells the story of a graduate of William and Mary, William Napier, who went to Missouri to find a lost will that would allow him to recover his inheritance.6 He seeks to recover the money owed to him, but the novel is also about preserving a memory of his family and recovering connections with the past.7 For example, at one point George Balcombe realizes that he was once a friend of Napier's family and even knew Napier as a child.8 Balcombe explains, "So goes the world! We love, we toil, we fight, we give our heart, and purse, and blood for those who presently forget us, and whom we forget."9 Even within an individual' s lifetime - to say nothing of across generations - there is the struggle to remember. Issues of truth commissions and apologies seek a similar reconciliation with the past: like the hero of Tucker's novel, they are both forward- and backward-looking, and they seek a memory and an understanding of the connections of our common humanity.

There is much talk these days of the connections between universities, businesses, and the government to the sins of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Historians have told us much about the violence that supports claims for reparations and their modest subset, truth commissions and apologies.10 Yet there is important work that needs to be done on the moral case. Some of the issues that must still be addressed are the connections of the government to slavery, the ways those crimes continue to have an impact today, and the reasons why the entire community might have some responsibility for these crimes.11

Even aside from the moral case - or perhaps because of the questions associated with it - there is substantial opposition. Poll data reveal that reparations advocates have a very long way to go to win public support. When the Mobile Register polled on reparations for slavery in 2002, the paper found it was the most racially divisive issue it had ever polled on.

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