Friday, May 23, 2008

University, Court, and Slave

I thought that I'd talk a little about my current project. I'm pretty excited about it, in part because it's something I've been working on (in one way or another) since beginning graduate school. I've had a bunch of detours, through colonial American history (particularly Quaker legal thought), through violence in the early twentieth century and contemporary discussion of reparations. But I'm now back and working on intellectual thought in the old South.

Alas, I'm one of those people who study dead, white men--and Christians and slaveholders at that. Every now and then a white woman wanders across my pages, too. And sometimes enslaved people speak--though as I'll talk about next month, I more often study ways that the slaveholders try to prevent them from speaking.

My current project is a monograph, tentatively called "University, Court, and Slave." It's about jurisprudence in the south in the years leading into Civil War. And the way I try to get at that complex set of ideas is by looking to the writings of academics, who were often more expressive about the matrix of ideas about economy (utility), history, and precedent than were judges faced with deciding cases in front of them.

In the years leading into Civil War, orators at Harvard and Yale spoke in support of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. William and Mary’s President Thomas Roderick Dew and University of Virginia Professor Albert Taylor Bledsoe were among the leading American proslavery writers. Randolph Macon College President William Smith wrote a proslavery college textbook, Lectures on the Philosophy and Practice of Slavery. Smith's book, like many other southern texts, are available on the UNC website. I 'm glad such books are available, so they can be studied.

These days I’m studying the intellectual defense of slavery in American colleges in the years leading into Civil War. The same language of moral philosophy that’s employed in colleges also appears in public debate (like the debate over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in Congress) and in judicial opinions. The concern for considerations of utility rather than individual humanity to slaves and their references to historical “knowledge” about the ubiquity and need for slavery appear in college classrooms, in public oratory, and in judicial opinions. Sometimes people write about the role of moral philosophy in judicial opinions. What interests me is how there is a common language. I don’t suggest that lessons Justice Thomas Ruffin learned while a student at Princeton in the first decade of the nineteenth century controlled him when he was a judge on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1829 through the 1850s. Rather, the language of utility and history that was common to college classrooms and to judicial opinions suggests some of the connections. The professors and jurists (and politicians, too) are drawing upon a common understanding of how to address moral problems.

Those sometimes hidden connections can help us answer some important questions about the reasoning process of antebellum jurists–-and so are important to legal historians. Once we focus on the ubiquitious considerations of utility, I think we understand why people as different in outlook as Morton Horwitz and Richard Posner both see economic considerations as central to jurisprudence in the 19th century.

Even more important than what they say about 19th century jurisprudence, these connections illustrate how powerful the proslavery forces were. They demonstrate that when we think about investigating universities’ connections to slavery, we should pay close attention to the ways that they loaned their intellectual capital to the project of continuing nearly four million people–-indeed our whole country–-in bondage. Those proslavery college professors were engaged scholars; they used their talents and their positions of influence to teach the next generation.

There are also stories about a few places where college professors opposed slavery. Judge William Gaston of the North Carolina Supreme Court spoke against slavery in an address at the University of North Carolina in 1835. After the mid-1830s, Southern schools–like the South more generally–were consistently and forcefully in favor of slavery.

President Francis Wayland of Brown University is one of those who opposed slavery; in 1845 he debated through a series of letters a proslavery minister from South Carolina, Richard Fuller. But those who opposed slavery were relatively few. More told their students and whoever else would listen that slavery was right; was ordained of God; was necessary for the continuation of American society; and that emancipation would cause greater harm (for slaves, as well as others) than would continuation of slavery. Such as some of the lessons we learn from rigorous investigations of our past, such as Brown University undertook. And for that knowledge, as for some many other things, we owe Brown's President Ruth Simmons and the Steering Committee’s leader, History Professor James Campbell, a huge debt.

Alfred Brophy