"The Destinies of the South Must Be Entrusted to Our Keeping": 1850s Secessionist and Pro-Slavery Thought at the University of Virginia
    by Gwen Dilworth

Through Peace, the fair angel's about to forsake us,
Though soon these rich valleys may desolated be,
Yet bondsman and serf, the foe never can make us,
For the Sons of the South have all sworn to be free.1

In early April 1861, Randolph Harrison McKim, a student at the University of Virginia (UVA), woke to shouts and cheers from the Lawn and various student lodgings. He writes: "evidently something unusual has occurred. The explanation is soon found as one observes all eyes turned to the dome of the rotunda from whose summit the Secession flag is seen waving."2 Despite the fact that Virginia had not yet seceded from the Union—the Commonwealth voted against secession on April 4, 1861—"so general was the sympathy with the Southern cause that not a voice was raised in condemnation of the rebellious and burglarious act of the students who must have been guilty of raising the Southern flag."3 Though opposed by some, the support for the Confederate cause in early 1861 was widespread on grounds, even prior to Virginia's swift secession from the Union on April 15th.

Support for secession was burgeoning at the University long before 1861. Just as the fall semester began in 1850, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, a collection of five bills meant to soothe tensions between slave states and free states following the Mexican-American War. Southerners saw the compromise, drafted by Kentucky Whig Henry Clay, as an affront to the constitutional rights of the South, and it unsettled students and faculty alike. The Compromise of 1850 created a panicked environment on grounds and in increasing numbers students, alumni, and faculty openly professed their opposition to abolition and their willingness to secede from the Union. Throughout the 1850s, as tensions between the North and the South heightened, students rallied around secessionist ideology, alumni justified slavery in writings and University addresses, and faculty members refuted abolitionist arguments with legal theory. The ideas formulated, expressed, and shared at the University would influence Americans across the nation and help to consolidate a foundation of intellectual pro-slavery and secessionist thought.

In 1850, over ten years before Virginia would vote to secede from the Union, the Southern Rights Association at the University of Virginia (SRA) was chartered, and in January 1851, the organization produced a constitution complete with an address and series of resolutions. The SRA's constitution was signed by nearly a third of the students enrolled in the University's 27th Session (1850-51), and the organization printed and distributed 2,500 copies of it among the student body and across the South. Though there is no record of the SRA continuing any sort of organized activity after 1851, its constitution and address served as a rallying cry for the "young men of the South" to take hold of their destiny and to assume responsibility for the future of slavery and the Southern states.

The address of the SRA, authored by seven students from Virginia and various other Southern states, outlined the students' grievances against the North, noting complaints specific to Virginia while embracing the wider lens of "Southern youth."4 Among the protestations noted were: the North's perversion of the Constitution in order to advance sectional interests, the North's failure to comply with the original terms outlined during Virginia's cessation of the Northwest Territory, the over-representation (in soldiers and funding) of the South in the Mexican-American War, the Compromise of 1850's burglary of Southern political power, and "the insatiable spirit of Abolitionism." The document addressed the young men of the South, stating: "we cannot forget that soon the destinies of the South must be entrusted to our keeping." Ultimately, the address concluded that should the North continue to violate the liberties of white Southerners, "we must show them, in the most intelligible manner, that the price of further aggressions on their part will be the dissolution of that Union."5 The address of the SRA was a definitively pro-slavery document, expressing the students' willingness to secede from the Union should the North fail to reconcile its supposed wrongdoing.

The SRA resolved that "[the young men of the South] are further requested to form similar Associations throughout the South, particularly at those Institutions at which Southern youths are educated."6 Indeed, Southern Rights organizations did spring up across the South during the 1850s, often independently of one another, out of popular resentment towards the Compromise of 1850.7 UVA's SRA was successful in influencing other southern students, and South Carolina College (SCC), now the University of South Carolina, followed suit with their own Southern Rights Association, attaching UVA's series of resolutions and printing 4,000 copies for distribution.8 SCC's address wrote, "a Government which does not protect property is entitled to no support," a phrase that would be repeated often in constitutional arguments over slavery.9

Much of the language used in UVA's SRA address was drawn from the writings of UVA alum Muscoe Garnett, who had addressed the Alumni Association in June 1850, just prior to the organization's founding. In his address, Garnett argued that slavery best provided for the nurturing of white man's democracy,10 a theory that would later be popularized by South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond during an 1858 speech, and known as the "mudsill" theory.11 The mudsill theory argued that the upper classes are able to move civilization forward only by virtue of lower-class and slave laborers' willingness to work, providing the "mudsill," or foundation, for human advancement. Garnett also anonymously published a book in 1850 titled The Union, Past and Future: How It Works, and How to Save It, which used constitutional history to defend slavery. In the opening page of the book, Garnett argues that any attack on "the fourteen hundred millions of dollars" in human property possessed by the South would undermine "all of honor and of happiness that civilization and society can give."12 Garnett's invocation of the Constitution's protection of property rights was echoed by the SRA, which described itself as "advocating southern rights under the banner of 'Justice and the Constitution.'"13 Garnett would continue to influence Southern policy as a member of the House of Representatives from 1856 to 1861 and in Confederate Congress throughout the Civil War.

During the early 19th century, Southern professors represented a wide range of perspectives on slavery, with some vocal in their opposition to slavery, and some staunchly in support of the protection of the peculiar institution. Thomas Dew, the President of the College of William & Mary during the late 1830s and early 1840s was a prominent pro-slavery apologist, who used academic writings such as his book, The Pro-Slavery Argument, to refute abolitionist arguments. Dew forged a path for other Southern professors to voice their intellectual defenses of slavery. By the 1850s, following the Compromise of 1850, faculty members' open defenses of slavery were becoming increasingly widespread at southern universities, including the University of Virginia.

Diversity of thought in respect to slavery and secession was present at UVA at this time, but "the center of balance among faculty was in favor of slavery."14 Law Professor James Holcombe believed that conservative literature, produced by Southerners, was essential to articulating and spreading defenses of slavery and refuting abolitionist writings. Using the conservative writings of the French Revolution as a case study, Holcombe addressed the UVA Alumni Association in 1853: "we shall divide the public opinion of the world, break the force of its sympathy, and by pouring through the bosoms of our people the living tide of hope, strengthen their hearts for the day of trial, and cover our land and its institutions with a shield of fire."15  Along with fellow faculty members at UVA, Holcombe produced the conservative, Southern literature that he believed would provide a crucial academic rebuttal to abolitionist and anti-secessionist thought across the nation.

Albert Taylor Bledsoe, a UVA professor of mathematics, echoed many of Holcombe's views on the South and slavery. Historian Alfred Brophy regards Bledsoe's 1856 Liberty and Slavery as "the most extensive philosophical treatment of slavery ever produced by a southern academic," reprinted repeatedly in the years leading up to the Civil War.16 Bledsoe argued that laws ensure, not restrict, liberty, and that slavery was an institution essential to maintaining public order and individual liberty. Further, he argued that emancipation wasn't practical, was fundamentally dangerous ("might cause irreparable injury to humanity"17), and that slave owners did not hold moral culpability for owning slaves, as they had simply been born into the system. Holcombe and Bledsoe used political theories of hierarchy and natural law to develop influential pro-slavery theories that challenged the Enlightenment idea that all people are created equal.

McKim writes, "Dr. Bledsoe was an enthusiastic advocate of Secession, to such an extent that he would not infrequently interlace his demonstration of some difficult problem in differential or integral calculus—for example, the Lemniscate of Bernoulli—with some vigorous remarks in the doctrine of States' rights." Pro-slavery rhetoric was not simply articulated by UVA professors for the benefit of abolitionists or fellow academics, but also for students. UVA students were clearly influenced by the pro-slavery ideas of Bledsoe and Holcombe, and used these ideas in their own writings, published in university literary magazines. The 1860 edition of Virginia University Magazine included an article written by students titled "Government A Divine Institution," which posited that in human society, government is intrinsic, and therefore divinely instituted. The authors used this deduction to conclude that the citizens' duty is to obey the law as written, or run the risk of inciting events like the French Revolution, an argument clearly influenced by Holcombe's analysis of the French Revolution. Brophy notes that UVA "produced some of the most sophisticated discussions of slavery among any of the [collegiate] literary magazines,"18 articulating new ideas and theories influenced by those of their professors.

Much other lively debate of slavery and secession occurred within the halls of the three debating societies on grounds at the time, the Jefferson, Washington, and Columbian Societies. In 1860, the members of the Washington Society debated the virtues of secession, voting 33-6 in favor of withdrawal from the Union. In 1856, as a result of growing antipathy between Northern and Southern legislators, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate with a gold-tipped cane. The cane shattered, but Brooks continued beating his adversary, leaving Sumner unable to serve as Senator for several years afterwards. The Jefferson Society, "'fully approv[ing] the course of Mr. Brooks' resolved to purchase him a 'splendid' new cane."19 By the end of the 1850s, the debating societies' allegiances clearly leaned in favor of the South's secession from the Union.

While the University was a hub of pro-slavery and secessionist thinking throughout the 1850s, some individuals affiliated with UVA did diverge from the staunch and unwavering support for the Southern cause expressed by many. An editorial published in a student magazine in March 1860 stated: "we have an abiding confidence in the stability of the Union, but there is a growing disposition on the part of both sections to encourage a system of practical non-intercourse between the North and South. The youths of the country…should also be taught that, however much we may differ in our view of the peculiar institution, we are still brethren of one family, the people of one nation, with one hope, one destiny, and one common love for the starry ensign of freedom, and the whole country over which it floats."20 Dedication to the Union's preservation was not uncommon at the University, and was voiced by professors, alumni, and students who believed secession was not a solution to the conflict between the North and South. However, many individuals who believed in the preservation of the Union were also strong proponents of slavery. In 1857, John Hodgson, a Fluvanna merchant, addressed the Jefferson Society to speak of the permanence of the Union, and the equally important right of the South to own slaves. Slavery was not seen as mutually exclusive with a commitment to the protection of the Union by all, even though slavery was commonly seen as essential to southerners.

In 1857, the anonymously authored "Is Slavery a Blessing?," distributed by the same publisher as Uncle Tom's Cabin, responded directly to Professor Bledsoe's Liberty and Slavery, arguing that human nature could and should be improved, not simply restrained, and that slaves' self-education was emblematic of their capability for freedom. However, he wrote "fanaticism at the North first begot the sophistry which defended slavery…the South have been urged to the brink of a precipice to which they may wildly leap if urged too far."21 Though he never identified himself, the essay is commonly attributed to Charles B. Shaw, a Virginian and adjunct professor of engineering at UVA in 1854 and 1855. Shaw's impassioned rebuttal of his colleague's famous defense of slavery is reflective of the diversity of opinion regarding secession and slavery at UVA, though his choice to remain anonymous illustrates the risks involved in countering the majority opinion held by students and professors.

The SRA's 1851 address read: "Deplorable as this state of things confessedly is, on what grounds can the South hope for a change for the better?...This question, it remains with the Young Men of the South to answer."22 For the next decade, the University served a center for exploration of this question, as UVA professors, students, and alumni contributed to the bedrock of intellectual pro-slavery and secessionist thought, ideas that would seek to justify the coming Civil War. When Thomas Jefferson founded the school in 1819, he envisioned a University founded upon both the advancement of human knowledge and a commitment to slavery23—a Southern alternative to the Ivy League schools of the North—and the 1850s at UVA served as a key intersection of these fundamental values, each reinforcing each other and perpetuating oppression under the guise of knowledge and liberty.


  1Philip Alexander Bruce, History of the University of Virginia: 1819-1919: The Lengthened Shadow of One Man; Volume 3 (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920). (Note: poem published originally in the April 1861 edition of the University Magazine.)
  2Randolph H. McKim. A Soldier's Recollections: Leaves from the Diary of a Young Confederate, with an Oration on the Motives and Aims of the Soldiers of the South (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1996).
  3McKim, A Soldier's Recollections. (Note: McKim later confessed to being one of the masterminds behind the flag-raising.)
  4Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, The Address of the Southern Rights' Association, of the University of Virginia, to the Young Men of the South (Charlottesville: James Alexander, printer, 1851).
  5Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, The Address.
  6Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, The Address.
  7Eric Harry Walther, "The Fire-Eaters, the South, and Secession." (PhD diss., Louisiana State University, 1988), 203.
  8Edwin Luther Green, A History of the University of South Carolina (Columbia: The State Company, 1916), a
  9Southern Rights Association at the South Carolina College, Address of the Southern Rights Association of the South Carolina College, to the Students in the Colleges and Universities, and to the Young Men, Throughout the Southern States (Columbia: A.S. Johnston, printer, 1851).
  10Muscoe Russell Hunter Garnett, "Address Delivered Before the Society of Alumni of the University of Virginia: at its Annual Meeting. Held in the Rotunda on the 29th of June, 1850," 1850.
  11Alfred L. Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Proslavery Academic Thought and Southern Jurisprudence, 1831-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  12A Citizen of Virginia, The Union, Past and Future: How It Works, and How to Save It (Charleston: Steam-Power Press of Walker & James, 1850).
  13Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, The Address.
  14Brophy, University, Court, and Slave.
  15James P. Holcombe, "An Address Delivered Before the Society of Alumni, of the University of Virginia: At Its Annual Meeting, June 29, 1853" (Richmond: Macfarlane & Fergusson, 1853).
  16Brophy, University, Court, and Slave.
  17Albert Taylor Bledsoe, "An Essay on Liberty and Slavery," (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & co., 1856).
  18Brophy, University, Court, and Slave.
  19Bruce, History of the University of Virginia.
  20Bruce, History of the University of Virginia.
  21Brophy, University, Court, and Slave.
  22Southern Rights Association of the University of Virginia, The Address.
  23"President's Commission on Slavery and the University" (Charlottesville: Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2018).