Dew, Thomas Roderick

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Dew, Thomas Roderick 1802–1846

In the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, which took the lives of fifty-seven whites in Southampton County, Virginia, and startled slaveholders throughout the South, the Virginia House of Delegates conducted an intense debate in 1832 over the institution of slavery itself throughout the South. Although the numbers of whites and blacks directly involved was small, with about seventy slave rebels in Turner’s band, the census of 1830 showed that Virginia contained 694,306 whites to 462,031 blacks, including 47,348 free blacks. As a direct result of the insurrection, more than 200 potential slave insurgents were executed; throughout the South, tighter rules were enacted for controlling blacks, free and unfree. Racial membership was seen literally as a matter of life and death.

The idea that any white person could lose his or her life in a slave uprising raised new fundamental issues about the institution of slavery, issues related to justice, safety, property rights, governance, economic value, moral effects, racial status, emancipation, colonization, and the “good” society. The members of the Virginia assembly were aware of the abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1829, as well as the decision of the British government to terminate slavery in the English-speaking West Indies. In January and February 1832 the legislators intensely debated the pros and cons of these issues. When the debates ended with the legality of slavery unchanged but the state seriously divided between its western sections, with few slaves, and the rest of the state, with the nation’s largest proportion of blacks, Governor John Floyd requested Thomas R. Dew to write a document to temper the effects of the debates. Dew, a thirty-year-old professor at the College of William and Mary, responded with Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832.

Born into an affluent family in King and Queen County in Virginia on December 5, 1802, Thomas Roderick Dew studied history, metaphysics, political economy, law, and government at William and Mary College in Virginia. Following his graduation in 1820 at the early age of eighteen, he toured Europe and studied philosophy in Germany before returning to the United States. In 1826 his alma mater hired him to teach history and political economy, and subsequently appointed him in 1836 to serve as its thirteenth president, a position he held to his death of pneumonia in Paris in 1846.

What follows is a summary of the primary points made in Dew’s Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832.

Dew held that, overall, slavery was good for the South and the enslaved blacks. He noted that slavery had not only been part of human history since antiquity, but the Bible also sanctioned it. He chastised—as inexperienced youthful males who were swayed by the enchantments of ill-advised so-called humanitarians—the Virginian law-makers who supported an aspect of Thomas Jefferson’s idea. (Although he accepted Jefferson’s racist views about blacks, Dew strongly opposed the black colonization vision that the former had stressed in his book Notes on the State of Virginia).

Dew supported slavery and used racist, religious, and moral sentiments, among others, to justify the perpetuation of slavery, precisely because he felt that Virginia and the rest of America would not survive economically or materially without slavery. He hypothesized that southern states would suffer from permanent famine if slavery were immediately abolished. He added that such a famine would be so severe that resources from other states in the Union would not eradicate it.

Perhaps referencing the chaos brought by the abolition of slavery in Haiti and other Caribbean islands in the 1790s and 1830, Dew echoed his opposition to immediate abolition of slavery when he implied that the replacement of enslaved labor with free labor in society would only bring social disruptions and calamities to such a society. To morally validate the continuation of slavery, Dew noted that any immediate abolition of slavery would only bring devastation to both former masters and slaves.

In line with his racist view, Dew noted that slavery changed the slaves from indolent and childlike Africans to a proficient workforce that cultivated crops, such as rice, sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton, and that helped to enrich America and other countries. He further noted that slavery, together with the racism used to justify slavery, was good in another sense because it was obviously helping to alleviate the tension that existed between the privileged and poor white classes in the antebellum South.

Dew’s statement that most slave-masters were good to their slaves was apparently intended to provide a further justification for the perpetuation of slavery, because the view implied that slavery was beneficial to the slaves as well as to the masters, and therefore there was no moral justification for its abolition.

Dew’s implication was that most slaves showed sincere affection for their masters, because according to him, they received paternal, benevolent treatment from them. Another example of Dew’s use of racism to rationalize the continuation of slavery is his view that the enslaved blacks would become the most insignificant and lazy of all Americans if slavery were abolished.

As noted, Dew not only attacked the supporters of abolition of slavery, but he also strongly rebuffed the American Colonization Society’s (ACS) attempt to colonize blacks on the coast of West Africa. To turn Southern planters against the ACS, Dew inconsistently envisaged that any regular expatriation of blacks from America would simply increase the cost of slaves, hearten slave procreation, increase the population of blacks in America, and overall would bring about irredeemable economic ruin to the antebellum South. He reminded Southerners as well as Northerners that there was nothing as risky as the attempt on the part of the ACS to tamper with the population of blacks. He added that such a move would increase the population of black people so dramatically that ACS would be unable to accommodate it. Dew declared that the colonization scheme was nothing but madness. He cautioned that if the scheme were to be carried out, it would destroy a large portion of Virginia’s wealth, together with its proud history and material achievements.

Thomas Dew’s publication was widely distributed and became the pro-slavery guidebook in the Deep South, giving much aid and comfort to those who may have once felt that something was not right in the buying and selling of human beings.


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Amos J. Beyan

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Dew, Thomas Roderick

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