Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 2. Pro-Slavery Arguments; Thomas R. Dew

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXI. Political Writing Since 1850

§ 2. Pro-Slavery Arguments; Thomas R. Dew

In the South the philosophy and defence of slavery and of a society based on inequalities among its members became the dominating theme. The discussion had begun a generation earlier with the memorable debates in the Virginia Legislature of 1831. To a committee was referred a number of petitions and memorials requesting emancipation or colonization of slaves and the removal of free negroes from the state. These furnished the cue for one of the really notable books in the history of American political thought, Thomas R. Dew’s Review of the Debates in the Virginia Legislature (1833). The author, after graduation from William and Mary at the early age of twenty, travelled and studied in Europe; then in 1827 became Professor of History, Metaphysics, Natural and National Law, Government and Political Science at his Alma Mater, and in 1836 was made president of the institution. His writing and teaching marked the beginning of the transition in the South from the political philosophy of the Revolution and the early nineteenth century, of which Jefferson was the ablest exponent, to that which dominated that section in the fifties. He argued against emancipation or colonization. His reasons were based on history, religion, and economics. Slavery was a characteristic of classical civilization; it was approved by the Scriptures; and in America the slave–holding states produced most of the country’s wealth—in fact, in Virginia the sale of surplus slaves equalled each year the value of the tobacco crop. Moreover, emancipation and deportation were impractical and the condition of the negro slave in the South was far better than that of the native African. Professor Dew publicly stated what many were privately thinking. His book therefore had a wide circulation and was reprinted in 1852 by William Gilmore Simms in his collection entitled Pro-Slavery Argument.