- University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War by Alfred L. Brophy
About eighteen pages into Alfred L. Brophy's University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War, I began to worry that the author was promising too much. According to Brophy, the book explains the intellectual foundations of proslavery thought through studies of individual thinkers and universities; the politicians who put these ideas into practice and the antislavery literary imaginary that arose in opposition; the proslavery judges such as Joseph H. Lumpkin who developed an economic rationale that expanded the salience of their doctrines; the slaves who pushed proslavery legal thought to the limits of its inhumanity; and, finally, the moral basis of secessionist ideology. The challenge Brophy sets out for himself is not simply telling these stories within the confines of a single monograph. His effort also requires a methodological flexibility—the ability to switch gears from legal history to high intellectual history and even some literary analysis. The ambition of the book is thus unmistakable.
The aspiration of University, Court, and Slave will not come as a surprise to those familiar with the author's previous scholarship. Brophy, who is a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, published in 2003 the best account of the 1921 Tulsa riot (Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation), which drew wide acclaim from historians and others. His Reparations: Pro and Con (2006) is also a crucial study of the past and the political possibilities of the reparation movement. Cutting through his scholarship is an incisive interest in how politicized memory has obscured how vested [End Page 481] interests in the American South have used race and racial thought to aggrandize power. This same interest lies at the heart of University, Court, and Slave as Brophy seeks to establish that "southern universities," which are known to tout the importance of their scholarly traditions, "justified themselves as places where students learned to defend southern values," especially slavery (8).
Brophy's erudition and passion for his subject are visible on virtually every page. Though legal cases and treatises constitute most of his evidence, he also combs through troves of other types of sources, including correspondence and literary discourse. Chapters follow a straightforward plan with identifiable arguments that preface distinct sections of argumentation most often marked off by leading subheadings. And for all of his scholarly ambition, Brophy writes in a refreshingly clear and simple—perhaps humble—manner. Taken together, Brophy's intellectual mastery of his subject, his nimble discussions of varied sources, and his understated yet elegant presentation allow him to make good on his many promises at the outset of University, Court, and Slave. Undoubtedly for many readers, this is a book that shifts the field of the legal history of the American South during the early republic and antebellum era.
Of the many noteworthy achievements of this monograph, Brophy's reassessment of leading proslavery judges in the book's final third will likely garner the most scholarly attention. North Carolina Supreme Court justice Thomas Ruffin, for example, most often studied through the lens of his infamous State v. Mann opinion (1829)—which found a slave owner could not be guilty of murdering a slave because the latter was property and not a person—is understood within a broader spectrum of over 425 other cases involving slavery. Ruffin appears less as a man struggling to reconcile the pain in his heart about the evils of slavery with the logic in his head necessitating it, than as himself a cold, intellectual automaton responding to the demands of "universal community sentiment and economy" (205).
Yet readers should also look outside the antebellum courtroom to appreciate Brophy's synoptic methodology. That is, University, Court, and Slave manages to tell from the bottom up and the top down the...