A Plan to Halt Slavery in Virginia; Nat Turner's Bloody Uprising Prompted Lawmaker's Reaction

Article excerpt


Although in his day Charles James Faulkner was hailed nationally as an outstanding lawyer, statesman and diplomat, today he is barely remembered outside his hometown. His one-time fame has been eclipsed by the more flamboyant figures of the Civil War era.

Faulkner's moderate views never allowed him to become totally committed to the secession of his native state; consequently, he barely participated in the great struggle.

Faulkner, Scots-Irish in ancestry, was born in Martinsburg, Va., on July 2, 1806. His father, local merchant James Faulkner, raised his only child himself after the death of his wife, Sara, in 1808.

During the War of 1812, the elder Faulkner, an accomplished artilleryman, gained martial glory when on June 22, 1813, his command repulsed a British naval attack on Craney Island, near Norfolk. At the end of the conflict, Maj. Faulkner returned home to a hero's welcome. However, illnesses brought on by exposure during the war constantly plagued him. He died on April 11, 1817, leaving his young son four slaves to rent out and modest proceeds from the family business.

With this income and help from local guardians, 11-year-old Charles continued his schooling at Georgetown College. He graduated in 1822.

Anti-slavery plan

Faulkner's activities over the next few years are hard to trace, but around 1826 he began studying law in Winchester under the tutelage of Chancellor Tucker.

In 1829, Faulkner began practicing law in Martinsburg. That same year, however, his interests also turned to politics, and in April he ran for and won a seat representing Berkeley County in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Late in 1831, Faulkner became a member of a select committee investigating that summer's slave uprising in Southampton County. The committee would not only look into Nat Turner's bloody rebellion but also "determine whether legislation could guarantee against its recurrences and, if so, just what laws were needed."

During this period, the young legislator came up with a plan to eliminate slavery gradually in the state. After the first of the year, Faulkner offered his proposals. First, ship all free Negroes to Liberia and establish them in farming communities there at the state's expense. Second, slave children born in Virginia after July 1, 1840, would be free. Finally, he proposed compensating slave owners for their losses.

On Jan. 20, 1832, in an impassioned address in the House, young Faulkner, though a slave owner himself, thoroughly dissected the "peculiar institution."

In what many observers called his greatest speech, he said that slavery was an outdated holdover from Colonial times, emphasizing that it "converts the energy of the community into indolence - its power into imbecility - its efficiency into weakness." Quoting Thomas Jefferson, he ended by asking the delegates, "Adopt some sort of plan, or worse will follow."

In the North, the speech found a ready audience. Abolitionists hailed it, and thereafter, William Lloyd Garrison published it annually in his newspaper, the Liberator. The lawmakers, however, rejected Faulkner's plan. Later, explaining his motive during the debate, he said, "A single spirit pervades my whole argument - a love and devotion to the best interests of Virginia."

Family and politics

In 1833, Faulkner retired from the legislature (except for a brief stint in the state Senate in 1841) to devote more time to his growing law practice, real estate deals and worthwhile community projects. On Sept. 26, he married 16-year-old Mary Boyd in Martinsburg, at the bride's home, Boydville. When her father died in 1841, Mary inherited the estate, and the couple made it their home. There, they raised a family of seven children.

In 1848, Charles Faulkner, by now financially secure, returned to politics and again won a seat in the House of Delegates. …