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  • Removing the Darkness Visible
  • Joanne Pope Melish (bio)
Eva Sheppard Wolf. Race and Liberty in the New Nation: Emancipation in Virginia from the Revolution to Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. xxi + 284 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00.

Could it really have been possible to eliminate slavery in the new American republic in the years immediately following the Revolution? Gary Nash thought so, arguing in 1990 in Race and Revolution that it was the self-interested inaction of northern politicians— many of whom espoused antislavery principles themselves—whose states had already moved to end slavery that doomed the nation to struggle with the peculiar institution for another three-quarters of a century. As an example of a state in which the commitment to natural rights ideology was strong enough in the Revolutionary moment to have led its leaders to initiate an end to slavery, Nash cited Virginia.

Evidence of the sustained power of antislavery sentiment in Virginia includes George Mason's original 1776 draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights that would have invalidated heritable slavery had it not been modified, as well as several laws passed in the late 1770s and early 1780s that banned the importation of slaves, legalized manumission, and emancipated enslaved Revolutionary veterans. In particular, the large number of manumissions that followed the passage of the 1782 relaxed manumission law has led some scholars to see Virginia as a state ripe for ending slavery, had there been a national initiative to provide incentive and support. From this perspective, the emancipation and colonization proposals debated in Virginia in 1831–32 in the wake of Nat Turner's revolt represented a last resurgence of Revolutionary antislavery sentiment that could have made Virginia the southernmost domino in the succession of New England and mid-Atlantic states that had embarked upon gradual emancipation by 1804. The failure of those proposals, then, marked a fatal turning point for Virginia toward a die-hard pro-slavery defense, secession, and Civil War.

Eva Wolf's Race and Liberty in the New Nation offers a new interpretation of Virginia's experience with slavery between 1776 and 1832. She characterizes Virginia's political leaders as resistant to the implications of republican principles for slaveholding from the outset, when they modified George Mason's [End Page 366] original 1776 draft of Virginia's Declaration of Rights to make the inherent right to freedom conditional upon membership in society—i.e., not a natural but a social right—thus excluding slaves who were defined traditionally as existing outside society. Quaker slaveholders in Virginia initially resisted the antislavery calls of Quaker activists elsewhere; but when Revolutionary rhetoric seemed to reinforce arguments against slavery, Virginia Quakers began to champion emancipation, and some Baptist and Methodist leaders followed suit. A number of secular slaveholders, too—including Lee, Mason, Madison, and Jefferson—became convinced of the evils of slavery, some because slaveholding violated natural rights but others simply because it endangered the safety and virtue of whites. A number of these men freed their slaves, others did not. They considered but never formally introduced various abolition bills, and legislation that would have modified a 1723 law still in force that required legislative consent for each manumission and deportation of the freed slave did not pass when it was submitted. Meanwhile, thousands of slaves demonstrated their own opposition to slavery by fleeing to British troops during the Revolution. All of these developments served to bring the question of slavery to the forefront of public debate.

Finally, in response to repeated Quaker petitions, the Virginia legislature passed a manumission bill in 1782 that allowed slaveowners to free slaves aged 18 to 45 if female and 21 to 45 if male without legislative approval and without requiring the slaves who had been emancipated to leave the state. A year later the legislature also passed a law freeing slaves who had been illegally enlisted as free men to serve in place of owners who now sought to re-enslave them. Yet other laws passed in the same period banned slave self-hire and provided for the recovery and confinement of slaves who had run away or become "lost...


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pp. 366-373
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