John B. Minor & the Tensions of Mastery
    by Ian Iverson

In a career which stretched five decades from 1845-1895, Professor John B. Minor reshaped legal education at UVA. In the years after the Civil War, Minor’s view of criminal law achieved national prominence as his former students, including Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice James Clark McReynolds and President Woodrow Wilson, assumed the reigns of power in the federal government. Turning back the clock, Minor’s antebellum and Civil War experiences prove equally interesting for historians. A man who came of age in the early 1830s, a moment of transition in Virginians attitudes towards racialized chattel slavery, Minor balanced conflicting views of the “peculiar institution.” In a pattern which some in the twenty-first century might call cognitive dissonance, Minor echoed Thomas Jefferson’s abstract denunciation of slavery without attacking the institution in practice. Throughout his years as a slaveholder, Minor uneasily balanced his distaste for the idea of bondage with the material comforts his reaped from his exploitation of bondpeople. Even as many of his peers began to defend slavery as a “positive good,” Minor continued to hesitate, alarmed by the political turmoil generated by the question of slavery’s expansion and eager to minimize the practice. Still, Minor continued to hold men, women, and children in bondage and used his power to intimidate bondpeople into submission. Minor might have justified this stance in his mind by adopting the role of paternalist master stretching back to Jefferson and fervently championed by slavery’s apologists in the 1840s and 1850s. Following his own religious awakening, Minor sought to bring the message of the Gospel and sacramental grace to enslaved people in his community. Yet in spite of such outward displays of benevolence,Minor continued to hire-out his enslaved people, subjecting them to hard labor and physical abuse at the hands of callous renters.

  As a young professor in the mid-1840s, Minor helped to pass resolutions at the Charlottesville Lyceum which denounced slavery as it existed in Virginia as “a social and political evil” and debated the merits of gradual emancipation. Yet, at the same time, Minor continued to exert his mastery the enslaved people he had left at his family’s plantation, Minor’s Folly, in Louisa County. Barely a year after taking his post at UVA, Minor received a series of frustrated letters detailing the continued disobedience of James “Jim” Friday. Minor’s brother, Lucian, noted that “Jim Friday has continued to run away… there is no certainty of his staying here, even if C[harles] were willing Jim, himself, wishes to be placed at the Farm, under Mr. Burton; because there are other negro boys whom he can play with. Charles wants you to write him and instruct if he must sell Jim.” Minor’s ten-year-old son, John D., repeatedly weighed in on the family debacle, bemoaning “What must I do with him Uncle Charles wont have & Mrs Jones wont have him.” John D. urged his father to intervene: “Please write to uncle Charles & tell him not to sell Jim to a negro trader for $400 but sell him to Mr Burton for two hundred I know you do not want him sold to a negro trader please write directly before he engages for him.” If the younger John Minor expected leniency, he proved sorely disappointed. His father responded: “It is by my request that he proposes to sell him. He has behaved so very badly as to make it necessary to dispose of him.” Minor offered a rather anemic justification, claiming “the only reason why that need be regretted is that it would occasion his being parted from his mother, who loves him, & is loved by him too little to care for the separation… As it is James, himself, I suppose is indifferent about it, and in truth will be better off under the strict government of a Southern master, than in Virginia, where I really fear he would come to the gallows.” Whether or not Minor followed through on his threat remains unclear as he continued to reference an enslaved “James” in the years to come.[1]

Minor’s self-described moderation on slavery landed him in hot water amid the fierce debate surrounding the Compromise of 1850. Decidedly pro-Union and pro-Compromise, Minor’s seeming indifference to Southern honor led to a falling-out with his brother and to accusations of abolitionism by former students. Although his stance won Minor accolades among the few remaining Virginia colonizationists, such as his cousin Mary Berkeley Blackford, who likened Minor to William Wilberforce, the experience of social ostracism suppressed further flirtation with antislavery politics. Instead, following his own reception into the Episcopal Church, Minor began to channel his energy into the spiritual welfare of enslaved people. Acting the role of paternalist championed by proslavery apologists such as his new colleague in the law school James P. Holcombe, Minor worked to found a chapel for enslaved people at UVA.[2]

In 1856, Minor lamented that his enslaved woman named Matilda might die spiritually unprepared after developing a sudden illness. Despite his role as a Sunday school teacher for enslaved people Minor agonized "I have no assurance, I can have but little hope, that she is prepared to die, and my conscience puts me on trial as to whether I may not have come short of my duty in instruction, exhortation, or example." Despite this trial of Minor's conscience, it remains unknown whether Matilda survived her illness. His surviving subsequent letters make no mention of her. Earlier that same year, Minor had received an interesting request. James Monroe, a man formerly enslaved to Minor, but now living as a free man in Ohio, wrote to the professor asking him to help facilitate the purchase of his daughter, who remained enslaved in the Charlottesville area. Whether Minor had been the one to manumit Monroe, or whether he had sold his daughter away from him in the first place remains unknown. So too does Minor’s reply, though no record exists of Minor facilitating the sale and manumission of Monroe's daughter.[3]

Meanwhile, Minor appeared to have hardened his stance on the politics of slavery. At the same time as Monroe wrote to Minor for his help, Minor corresponded with an associate who had traveled to Ohio to recapture fugitive slaves. Minor also continued to hire-out his enslaved people until the end of the Civil War. At least one of them, a woman named Ellen, returned to the Minor family residence at Pavillion X having suffered a fierce beating from the man named Collin who had rented her. Although John B. Minor’s reaction remains unknown, his daughter Mary expressed no sympathy for her, referring to Ellen as a “plague.” During the Civil War, at least one enslaved member of Minor’s household, a man named Henry, escaped to the Union army to secure his freedom. Minor offered a mixed reaction to this desire for liberty—a symptom of his divided conscience. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Minor appeared aware of the universal desire for liberty, yet like nearly all of his fellow white Virginians, he would concede this right to African Americans only at the point of a bayonet.[4]


1. Charlottesville Lyceum, June 13, 1845; Lucian Minor to John B. Minor, August 5, 1846, Minor Family Papers, University of Virginia Special Collections Dept. Alderman Library; John D. Minor to Martha Minor and John B. Minor, August 18, 1846; John B. Minor to John D. Minor, August 22, 1846; John B. Minor to John D. Minor, August 22, 1846.

2. E.R. Watson to John B. Minor, February 26, 1849; Mary B. Blackford and William Blackford to John B. Minor, September 1, 1849; William Blackford to John B. Minor, January 26, 1850; Lucian Minor to John B. Minor, May 13, 1850; John H. Cocke to John B. Minor, December 3, 1856.

3. John B. Minor to Mary L. Minor, December 5, 1856; James Monroe to John B. Minor, August 30, 1856.

4. William D. Terrell to John B. Minor, April 2, 1856; Mary L. Minor to Aunt, March, 8, 1865; Mary L. Minor to Aunt, April 7, 1865.