- Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner's Rebellion
How should historians evaluate the famously anti-slavery rhetoric of some of the leading Virginia slaveholders in the early republic? Answers to this question have ranged from applause to critical sympathy to denunciations of hypocrisy.1 Wolf's Race and Liberty enters this fray by examining manumission in Virginia "with both zoom and wide-angle lenses" (43). Wolf aims the zoom lens at samples of manumission documents (mainly deeds that conveyed freedom to individuals), many of which included detailed provisions and justifications. She aims the wide-angle lens at political debates in the legislature, courts, conventions, pamphlets, and newspapers. Her most striking argument is quantitative—that fewer slaves were freed through manumission in early-republican Virginia than historians have supposed—and her chief conclusion is that white Virginians were "profoundly ambivalent" about slavery and the presence of free people of color.
To historians still interested in the old questions about personal motives, Wolf offers the new evidence that she has culled from the manumission documents. More interesting, however, is what Wolf offers to scholars interested in more contemporary questions about social and political results. Under a relatively liberal manumission regime that lasted from 1782 to 1806 ("liberal" in that it did not banish free people of color from the state), religious and secular anti-slavery commitments in the 1790s gave way to more complex uses of manumission. The early manumitters [End Page 624] were more likely to free all of their slaves, free them immediately, and make broad anti-slavery statements. The later manumitters tended to free only certain slaves, delay effective dates of emancipation (often for many years), and describe the personal qualities (generally of subservience) that somehow made individuals "deserving" of freedom. Wolf analyzes cases in which free people of color used this system to free family members after buying them and cases in which slaves struck deals with masters promising good work in exchange for future liberation. She sees the latter situation as a road not taken. Other slave societies deployed the hope for freedom as a "safety valve," but this practice existed only briefly in Virginia. By the 1820s, laws and court rulings identified race (white/black) with status (free/slave) more consistently than before.
Wolf interprets her evidence cautiously. She samples intelligently and counts where she can, but she is also interested in parsing the cultural ramifications of practice and rhetoric. She concludes that the 10,000 slaves manumitted in revolutionary-era Virginia (earlier estimates as high as 30,000 were extrapolated improperly from census data) did not weaken slavery. "What Virginians' experience with manumission did challenge was white Virginians' construction of race as a marker of slave or free status" (47). White Virginians met this challenge, surmounted their "ambivalence," and limited the freedom of free people of color. The non-slaveholders who attacked slavery for degrading white political rights (in the 1829/30 constitutional convention and 1831/32 slavery debate) did nothing to help black Virginians.
Written clearly and accessibly, Race and Liberty in the New Nation should spark discussions of important matters.
1. Examples of the two latter tendencies include Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, 1968); William W. Freehling, "The Founding Fathers and Slavery," American Historical Review, LXXVII (1972), 81–93; Edmund S. Morgan, "Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox," Journal of American History, LIX (1972), 5–29; Robert McColley, Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia (Urbana, 1973; orig. pub. 1964); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Ithaca, 1975); Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (Madison, 1990); Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (Armonk, 2001); Conor Cruise O'Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (Chicago, 1996); Garry Wills, "Negro President": Thomas Jefferson and...