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In this important work, Alfred L. Brophy connects southern colleges—especially the professoriate—to jurisprudence and the political and intellectual defense of slavery in the antebellum era. This unique perspective results from the author's distinguished career as a legal scholar and compiles many of the author's previously published articles and essays on the topic, which have largely appeared only in law reviews. Now making this work more accessible to historians, Brophy adds meaningfully to the broader field of southern intellectual history.
Taking into consideration a wealth of judicial opinions, published speeches, pamphlets, and books, Brophy argues that southern judges were not simply passive arbiters of law in a slave society; they were agents in the creation of that society's unique culture, ensuring its viability, commercially and socially. Theirs was "a jurisprudence based on economics, religious teachings, and empirical observation about slavery," especially historical observations (p. xix). This conservative worldview privileged law and order, and it embraced utilitarianism and empiricism. The book focuses specifically on the period from Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion, which prompted the Virginia legislature to meet and debate the future of slavery, to the 1861 secession crisis.
Brophy organizes his explication of antebellum proslavery jurisprudence [End Page 679] over twelve chapters, divided into three parts. Part one shows how colleges and universities played an important role in producing and disseminating original defenses of slavery. Brophy argues that, while there was some flexibility on certain campuses, most notably in states such as North Carolina and Virginia, when it came to intellectual arguments for and against slavery, a consensus emerged by the late antebellum period that slavery was natural, historical, moral, and even economically expedient. Focusing on moral philosophy, Brophy argues that this shift depended on the abandonment of Enlightenment thought for utilitarianism. In the 1840s and 1850s, authors and professors stressed the positive impact slavery had on white society, particularly in terms of commercial society. It was in this context that one professor at Davidson College in North Carolina wrote proslavery math problems for his students and students at the University of North Carolina debated among themselves the morality of slavery.
Based on the contours of academic thought, part two connects moral philosophy and antebellum legal thought. Brophy underscores an unresolvable conflict between proslavery theorists and abolitionists who increasingly put them on edge: the former viewed jurisprudence based on the "world as it was" while the latter imagined a world as it could be (pp. 163–64). Specifically, Brophy juxtaposes the use of moral suasion in Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery fiction and the use of empiricism and historicism in proslavery responses to that line of thought. Part three moves from ideas to actions, from thought to law. Here, Brophy's legal expertise is most visible, as he probes a range of state judicial opinions such as Thomas Ruffin's famous Statev. Mann, which upheld the absolute power over a slave, and laws regulating the emancipation of slaves in wills and trusts.
Brophy's research into this topic is exhaustive, which readers can easily see in many close textual readings. At times, Brophy favors exegesis over narrative. Often-lengthy block quotations interrupt the narrative flow, and the reader might miss the forest through the trees. This is especially the case in Brophy's explication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's fiction in the book's second part, which struggles to connect [End Page 680] universities, professors, and courts as clearly as readers might want, given the book's title. These minor quibbles aside, this is an important book. Scholars of southern intellectual life, education, and the law will find Brophy's thorough analysis of both landmark and obscure proslavery literature useful and provocative.
TIMOTHY J. WILLIAMS teaches history at the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon and is the author of Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (2015).