Primary Resource

Letter from St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap (June 29, 1795)

In this letter to the clergyman and historian Jeremy Belknap, of the Massachusetts Historical Society, dated June 29, 1795, St. George Tucker drafts a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves in Virginia. Earlier in the year, Tucker had mailed Belknap a series of queries regarding Massachusetts's history of slavery and emancipation, which Belknap had circulated among various experts. He then sent Tucker a report on the responses. Tucker eventually published his plan as A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia (1796).

Transcription from Original

Williamsburg, Virginia, June 29, 1795.

Sir,—It is some weeks since I had the pleasure of receiving your last favor accompanying answers to the remaining queries which I took the liberty of transmitting you. Being at that time very much engaged, and obliged to leave home for several weeks, I deferred answering your letter till my return; and since that period I have been too much indisposed to write. Permit me now, sir, to render you my best acknowledgments, not only for the great trouble you have taken, and the obliging readiness you have manifested to comply with my request, but for the very full and satisfactory manner in which you have communicated the result of your researches. Happy has it been for your country that the progress of slavery, from a combination of natural causes, with political considerations, and even human weakness and prejudice, has been so inconsiderable therein as to render the extirpation of it neither difficult nor dangerous. With us, on the contrary, climate, a baneful policy, and a different operation of the same prejudice which prevented its growth in the Massachusetts, have combined to cherish an evil which is now so thoroughly incorporated in our constitution as to render ineffectual, I fear, every attempt to eradicate it, and to make it doubtful whether even palliatives may not operate to encrease our distemper. From your researches, it appears that the greatest proportion of slaves to free whites in Massachusetts was as 1 to 40; whereas, in Virginia, it appears by the late census of the United States there are 305,943 blacks, including 12,866 free blacks, and 442,117 whites, which is nearly as 2 to 3. But this is not all. If the State of Virginia be divided into 4 districts, the first comprehending all the counties from the ocean to the falls of the rivers, and some few of the

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adjacent counties will be found to contain 196,542 slaves and 198,371 free persons, including a proportion of the 12,866 free blacks, probably not less than 8,000; so that, in a tract of country comprehending more than one-half the population of Virginia, there are more blacks, and even more slaves, than free white persons. In the second class, extending to the Blue Ridge of mountains, and including the counties of Frederick and Berkeley beyond it, there are 82,286 slaves, and 136,251 free persons, which is nearly 2 to 3. In the third district, extending to the Allegany Mountains, there are 11,218 slaves, and 76,281 free persons, nearly as 1 to 7 only. In the fourth district, reaching from the eastern side of the Alleganey to the Kentucky line, there are only 2,381 slaves, and 41,318 free persons, nearly as 1 to 20 only. From this view of the subject, it will appear that the most populous and cultivated parts of Virginia would not only bear an infinite disproportion in the diminution of property by a general emancipation, but that the dangers and inconveniences of any experiment to release the blacks from a state of bondage must fall exclusively almost upon these parts of the State. The calamities which have lately spread like a contagion through the West India Islands [i.e., the Haitian Revolution] afford a solemn warning to us of the dangerous predicament in which we stand, whether we persist in the now perhaps unavoidable course entailed upon us by our ancestors, or, copying after the liberal sentiments of the national convention of France, endeavour to do justice to the rights of human nature, and to banish deep-rooted, nay, almost innate, prejudices. The latter is a task, perhaps, beyond the power of human nature to accomplish. If, in Massachusetts, where the numbers are comparatively very small, this prejudice be discernable, how much stronger may it be imagined in this country, where every white man felt himself born to tyrannize, where the blacks were regarded as of no more importance than the brute cattle, where the laws rendered even venial offences criminal in them, where every species of degradation towards them was exercised on all occasions, and where even their lives were exposed to the ferocity of their masters; for it is only within these few years that an act, passed above a century ago,* exempting the masters of slaves, or others punishing a slave by

* Anno 1669.

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order of their masters, from any penalty or prosecution in consequence of any slave dying in consequence of excessive chastisement, for which this reason was assigned by the legislators of those days: "Since it cannot be presumed that prepensive malice, which alone makes murder felony, should induce any man to destroy his own estate." This abominable law continued to stain our code, and to corrupt the morals of the people of Virginia, until the year 1788. In that year, I, for the first time since my acquaintance with courts, saw a white man tried and convicted for the murder of a slave by excessive whipping, and he was hanged accordingly. Unfortunately, in the new edition of our laws, the legislature thought it sufficient to expunge the former act, without inserting the latter. I fear it may have an ill consequence; for there is nothing like holding up a warning in view of bad men. Whatever disposition the first settlers in Virginia or their immediate descendants might have had to encourage slavery, the present generation are, I am persuaded, more liberal; and a large majority of slave-holders among us would cheerfully concur in any feasible plan for the abolition of it. The objections to the measure are drawn from the deep-rooted prejudices in the minds of the whites against the blacks, the general opinion of their mental inferiority, and an aversion to their corporeal distinctions from us, both which considerations militate against a general incorporation of them with us; the danger of granting them a practical admission to the rights of citizens; the possibility of their becoming idle, dissipated, and finally a numerous banditti, instead of turning their attention to industry and labour; the injury to agriculture in a large part of the State, where they are almost the only labourers, should they withdraw themselves from the culture of the earth; and the impracticability, and perhaps the dangerous policy, of an attempt to colonize them within the limits of the United States, or elsewhere. Mr. Jefferson seems to hint at this expedient; but surely he could not have weighed the difficulties and expence of an attempt to colonize 300,000 persons. If the attempt were made within the United States, it would probably include a provision for the slaves in the other States, amounting, on the whole, to 800,000. Could the funds of the United States support such a colony? If an army of 3 or 4 thousand men in the Western country is supported at such expence as that a bushel

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of corn has sometimes cost $10 before it reached the camp, what would be the expence of colonizing such an host? If even 20,000 colonists were yearly sent out, how enormous would be the expence, and how great the undertaking. Yet, with 20,000 colonists only sent out yearly, the numbers of those which remain would continually encrease, if the same causes which have hitherto contributed to their multiplication should be continued. Besides, what hardships, what destruction, would not the wretched colonists be exposed to? If humanity plead for their emancipation, it pleads more strongly against colonization; for, having stated the impracticability of it within the United States, I pass over the scheme of sending them back to their native country, to effectuate which, without the most cruel oppression, would require the utmost exertion of all the maritime powers in Europe, united with those of America, and a territory often times the extent that-all the powers of Europe possess in Africa. One of three courses, then, must inevitably be pursued: either to incorporate them with us, to grant them freedom without any participation of civil rights, or to retain them in slavery. If it be true that either nature or long habit have depraved their faculties so as to render them, in their present state, an inferior order of beings, may not an attempt to elevate them depress those who mingle and incorporate with them? May not such an attempt be frustrated by prejudices too deeply rooted to be eradicated? The numbers being so nearly equal in Virginia, may not such prejudices generate a civil war, and end in the extermination of one party or the other? especially as Nature herself has fixed the characters by which those parties would be discriminated, so long as either existed. To the second measure, it has been objected that, by granting freedom only, without civil rights, you will stimulate them to procure by force what you have refused to grant them, which must lay the foundation of all the evils to be apprehended from a full incorporation of them amongst us. And to both measures it is further objected, that agriculture will languish as soon as they who are now compelled to till the ground are left at liberty to work or be idle, as most agreeable to them; that experience among us has shewn that emancipated blacks rarely are industrious; that, if so great a proportion of the inhabitants of the country should become idle, they will soon owe their subsistence to

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plunder alone; that those who wish for their emancipation equally wish for their total removal from the limits of the State; that, having been long accustomed to strict restraint in small bodies, they will not easily be restrained by general laws, which they have never been in the habit of regarding as having any relation to them. Those who argue thus contend that their present condition (the rigors of slavery having been much softened among us within these few years) is infinitely preferable to that degraded freedom they would enjoy, if emancipated. They insist that they are better clothed, lodged, and fed, than if it depended upon themselves to provide their own food, raiment, and houses; that the restraint upon them prevents their falling into vicious habits, which emancipated blacks appear too prone to contract. It may be observed, indeed, that, although the number of slaves is to the free blacks as 24 to 1, yet there are many more of the latter brought to answer for their crimes in courts of judicature than of the former. One reason for this undoubtedly is that slaves are punished by their masters for petty larcenies, for which a free man can only be punished by due course of law. But, even of capital crimes, more are committed by free blacks than by slaves. And, if I may judge by my own experience in courts which I have attended, the proportion of free black criminals to whites is nearly as one to three, though the proportion of free blacks to whites is not more than one for thirty-six. It is, however, but just to observe that I do not recollect more than one instance of murder committed by a free black, and in that instance he was an accomplice with a white man, who was the principal in the murder. Among slaves, murder is not very uncommon; and not unfrequently their victims have been their overseers, and sometimes, though very rarely, their own masters or mistresses, by means of poison. In most of these cases, the most humane persons have been the sufferers. They occur, however, so very seldom, that I am inclined to believe as many cases happen in England of masters or mistresses murdered by their servants, as in Virginia.

I have taken the liberty of troubling you with these remarks, wishing, if your leisure will permit, to learn your sentiments on a subject of such importance to humanity, which is, unhappily, involved in a labyrinth of political difficulties. I feel myself sometimes prompted to exclaim, "Fiat justitia ruat ccelum"! but the

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scene now passing in the West Indies prompts me to suspend my opinion, and to doubt whether it will not be wiser to set about amending the condition of the slave than to make him a miserable free man. Your communications on this subject, whenever your leisure will permit, without interrupting your other pursuits, will be most gratefully received.

I have endeavoured to procure for you a copy of Stith's History of Virginia, but without that degree of success which I wish, having only been able to get one which is mutilated of the preface, and in several leaves of the beginning of the work. I never saw but two complete copies of it. One, now in my possession, I borrowed of an old neighbour, who refused to sell it to me. The other was in possession of Mr. Stith's daughter, a woman turned of fifty, who resides in this town. She would not part with it. From her I was informed "that her father died in the year 1755. She was then 13 years old. She recollects no particulars respecting him, except that he was turned of fifty, she thinks about 55. She remembers that his papers, and with them a large book of letters, were delivered to Col. Richard Bland, of Prince George County, who, as she understood, was to finish the History of Virginia, which her father had begun." The Rev. Mr. Spooner, formerly of New England, now Rector of Martins Brandon parish in Prince George County, some years ago published proposals for printing the works of Col. Bland, from original papers in his possession. I think it probable that Mr. Stith's papers, and the book mentioned by his daughter, might have been among them, and have obtained a promise from Bishop Madison to write to Mr. Spooner on the subject. From the preface to Stith's appendix, it would appear that he had very little encouragement to go on with his work; a circumstance to be regretted, as the materials at that day within his reach are now irretrievably lost, all the public Archives of Virginia, which had escaped two fires, having been destroyed at Richmond, by General Arnold. Mr. Jefferson calls him "a man of classical learning, and very exact, but of no taste in style." His prefaces bespeak him a man of labour, well qualified for making a compilation of those materials, which he had not the talent of arranging and unfolding with that elegance which constitutes one of the excellencies of an historian. I am encouraged to hope that the mutilated copy of his work

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which I send you may, may with the assistance of that which you mention having seen, afford you a full view of his work, having observed a reference to page 7th of Stith, in the 1st volume of your American Biography, and the copy sent being perfect after the 8th page. If, however, I should be mistaken, if you will apprize me of it, I will have the preface and the first eight pages transcribed, and send them to you.*

It is but a few days since I have had the pleasure of seeing the work which I have just mentioned. I read it with pleasure, and hope that its success has been such as to give us hopes of seeing the continuation. The account given of Biron, I find, perfectly corresponds with that of Monsr. Mallet, in his Northern Antiquities, a work which, if you have not seen, you will probably find deserving a place in your library. I am led to take the liberty of making this remark, as I observed you had not referred to it. I some time since met with a book entitled "Letters on Iceland," the author a German, or Dane, or Swede, whose name I do not recollect. If I mistake not, he mentions some traces of Biron's voyage to Finland, though possibly my having read Mallet since may occasion me to mistake. This author accompanied Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland, a few years ago. The cursory reading that I was obliged to give it occasions me to doubt whether I am correct in saying that he mentioned Biron's Voyage to Finland. I had also the pleasure of seeing one number of the publications of the Historical Society in Boston. I wish that such societies were established in every part of the Union, or that correspondents were diffused throughout the United States. You will do me a favour by transmitting me all the numbers that have been published, bound in annual or biennial volumes, and by placing my name on the list of subscribers. The amount of my subscription shall be transmitted through the hands of Messrs. Baxter & Co., in Richmond. Might I not appear too presumptuous, I would entreat you to forward me any litterary productions of merit that either have appeared, or may hereafter appear, in Boston. At the head of this list, I should beg leave to mention the American Biography. I fear, sir, I have exhausted your patience by this long letter.

*This copy of Stith is now in the Library of the Historical Society.—Eds.

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I will only add to it a repetition of those thanks which you are entitled to from me, and subscribe myself, with the highest respect and esteem, sir,

Your most obliged, humble servant,

S. G. Tucker,

You will receive, by this post, the copy of Stith's History of Virginia, and a small pamphlet.