02 March 2009

The Sage Of Old Virginia On The Slave Trade

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another." ~ from one of Virginia's favorite sons, Thomas Jefferson, writing in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence

England was not the first government in the modern world to criminalize the slave trade. That distinction belongs to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which outlawed the practice in 1778 twenty-nine years before Wilbur Wilberforce's bill became law. (This act became law in Virginia under the governorship of Patrick Henry, himself a slaveowner and professing Christian and added that, "every slave imported into this Commonwealth, contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act, shall, upon such importation, become free.").

Virginia also passed legislation four years later in 1782 which encouraged emancipation. That legislation went so far as to require slave owners to support their emancipated slaves who might not be able to sustain themselves in a gainful occupation. The slavery question continued to come up for debate and public discourse until Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph (pictured here), introduced legislation in the House of Delegates in 1832 that would have ended slavery in Virginia. He proposed an idea that had originated with his grandfather (Thomas Jefferson), a proposal that had been defeated by the General Assembly in 1779. Randolph suggested that every male slave born after July 4, 1840, be granted his freedom upon his twenty-first birthday. The legislation would grant the same freedom to female slaves upon their eighteenth birthday. Randolph’s bill was defeated by only a “small majority.”

In fact, the Reverend Randolph McKim (1842–1920), a Confederate chaplain and one-time rector of Christ Church in Alexandria, wrote in A Soldier’s Recollections that Randolph assured him in 1860 “that emancipation would certainly have been carried the ensuing year, but for the revulsion of feeling which followed the fanatical agitation of the subject by the Abolitionists of the period.” And although the bill was defeated, the Virginia legislature “passed a resolution postponing the consideration of the subject till public opinion had further developed.” An editorial in the March 6, 1832, Richmond Whig praised the legislature’s efforts and further noted: “The great mass of Virginia herself triumphs that the slavery question has been taken up by the legislature, that her legislators are grappling with the monster, and they contemplate the distant but ardently desired result [emancipation] as the supreme good which a benevolent Providence could vouchsafe.”


Border Ruffian said...

It shoud be noted that in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 all New England states present (MA, CT, NH) voted for continuing the trans-Atlantic slave trade for an additional 20 years. Two Southern states- Virginia and Delaware -voted against.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Right. I hope to post more on that aspect of this soon. Thanks for your input.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Regarding Delaware, don't forget VP Biden's comment that Delaware was a "slave state that fought beside the North. That's only because we couldn't figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way."

Jubilo said...

Dear Old Dominion,
It must be remembered that the Virginia mentioned here contained the 43 counties that became West Virginia. The Tidewater folks seemed to side with the Fire-Eaters (Rhett,Yancey,et.al.), who were all for resuming the African slave trade in 1860. This same slave trade was declared illegal by Virginian President James Madisoin in 1820. Paradoxical, ain't it?
David Corbett

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hi David. Madison "declared" the slave trade illegal? Can you elaborate?

cenantua said...

I made the same point that Mr. Corbett just made but in an earlier post here. The western Virginia counties, even those on the fringe (counties that did not become part of West Virginia, but were in the Blue Ridge Valley range) might have swayed things, but the Tidewater folks were rather dug-in heels first. Later, during Letcher's run for governor, he had to reverse his opinion (especially considering his support of the Ruffner Pamphlet) of things to gain favor (and votes) among the slaveholders of the Tidewater.

However, Richard, apart from Randolph's statement to McKim, have you seen that anyone else supported this belief held by Randolph?


cenantua said...

Just to clarify and not make some think I've lost my timeline of events... the Ruffner Pamphlet did not come out until 1847.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


As I recall off-hand, not specifically. I'd like to look into that some more. As you point out, Letcher endorsed Ruffner's pamphlet originally, but the Tidewater folks labeled Ruffner an "abolitionist" (which he clearly was not) and he left Lexington shortly after his pamphlet's publication. Of course, that pamphlet argued for emancipation on economic grounds, not moral.

Also, interestingly enough, Ruffner's son also assisted Beverly Tucker Lacy in teaching a black Sunday school prior to Jackson's. Ruffner (the son) was Virginia's first Supt. of public education.

cenantua said...


Yes, and in his pamphlet, Ruffner didn't hide his feelings about slaves, if you know what I mean.

As for Letcher, that is correct. He wasn't an abolitionist, but I think he did waiver on his personal ideas on slavery when he sought the support of the slaveholders in the Tidewater.

I think that Ruffner's son was more of a moderate than his father.

The Ruffner line is one of personal interest. I focused on them in one of my articles in my column as they had roots in Page County. I just recently found out that family members in Kanawha were split regarding sympathies during the Civil War. One was a representative to the convention that created the state of West Virginia.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Actually, I was referring to Ruffner the elder who the TW folks labeled an abolitionist. Letcher - yes, of course, he was a politician.

Another interesting tidbit about Ruffner the younger - John B. Lyle, the bookstore owner who first befriended Jackson when he came to Lexington, was Ruffner's uncle. I assume he was brother to Ruffner's mother?

cenantua said...

Ok, yes, labeling Ruffner an abolitionist is also more than a stretch.

I didn't know about the Lyle connection.

Didn't Ruffner live in the Jackson home as a renter during the war?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I don't know. I believe Mrs. Jackson went home to NC for the war.

cenantua said...

Just looked it up. I remembered that Edward Guerrant (author of Bluegrass Confederate) had dinner with Rev. William Ruffner in Oct. 1864 (Guerrant's Brigade was headed to the central Shenandoah Valley). Ruffner was at that time living in the "Jackson residence."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Robert - you're a genius.

Thanks for the info, I really appreciate your input. I just emailed you a photo of Ruffner's tombstone.

cenantua said...

Thanks. It's a better photo than the one that I had.

You need to see Guerrant's book. Really interesting stories about his visit to Natural Bridge, Jackson's grave, the whole deal. He was thrilled that his brigade was coming to the Valley. Almost sounded like a vacation trip. He also took a piece of Jackson's headstone.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Yes, I'd like to find a copy. It does sound interesting. Speaking of NB and Confederates, I have a story somewhere in my files about a contractor, sometime in the early 20th century, who supposedly found a box of gold buried somewhere on the grounds of NB. I'll try to "dig it up" later and maybe post on it or perhaps Kevin would like for me to submit an essay about NB and this story for his most recently announced project . . .

Probably not.