University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern College and Courts and the Coming of the Civil War

By Oast, Jennifer | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern College and Courts and the Coming of the Civil War


Oast, Jennifer, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of the Civil War * Alfred L. Brophy * New York: Oxford University Press, 2016 * xxviii, 374 pp. * $39.95

Alfred Brophy's University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of the Civil War is an expansive intellectual history of proslavery ideology. Brophy illuminates the influence of southern professors-"people of the mind"- upon politicians, judges, and lawyers, or "people of action" (p. 195). The pronounced turn from Enlightenment ideals that "all men are created equal" toward utilitarian proslavery arguments after 1830 by those on university campuses had a lasting impact on their students, who eventually constructed the jurisprudence of slavery and, ultimately, the rationale for secession.

After Nat Turners rebellion in 1831, Virginia legislators debated, but rejected, emancipation of slaves. William and Mary professor Thomas Roderick Dew responded to the debates in his influential Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832, which opposed emancipation. Dew's Review offered proslavery arguments that others would build upon for three decades: he emphasized its humanity, called upon biblical and historical precedent, and argued that it aided the development of civilization. He frightened readers by invoking Haiti and proposed that colonization was impractical. Brophy writes that Dew, "systematized the pro-slavery argument. He brought together diverse strands, linking ancient and recent history, even contemporary politics and economics with political philosophy" (p. 41).

Brophy next delves into proslavery thought among other southern professors and individuals who gave addresses at southern universities. Not all were in favor of slavery; he offers Henry Ruffner of Washington College as an example of an antislavery professor. However, such men were far outnumbered by proslavery professors, and that became truer over time. Brophy studied a large swath of southern colleges, including Transylvania College, the University of Virginia, Randolph Macon College, Centenary College, Emory College, and even such obscure institutions as Mississippi Planters' College and the Greensboro Female Academy. …

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