James P. Holcombe: Champion of Slavery and Secession
    by Ian Iverson

No professor better exemplified UVA’s lurch from denouncing slavery as a necessary evil to embracing slavery as a positive good better than James P. Holcombe. A native of Lynchburg, Holcombe’s parents had fiercely advocated emancipation and colonization, going so far as to emancipate all fifteen of their bondspeople and providing them each with an average of $500 (roughly equivalent to $14,000 in 2020) to assist in their relocation to either Liberia or Ohio. Disgusted by the intransigence of their slaveholding neighbors, the pair eventually sold their extensive property in Virginia and relocated to Indiana. Holcombe, having graduated from Yale and UVA’s law school, initially followed his parents northward, settling in Cincinnati. Yet unlike his progenitors, Holcombe found little redeeming in free society and returned to Virginia in 1851 as a strident defender of slavery. Accepting an appointment as Adjunct Professor of Law alongside John B. Minor, Holcombe injected strong doses of proslavery and pro-Southern sentiment into his lectures on constitutional law.1

In “Is Slavery Consistent with Natural Law,” a speech delivered to the Virginia State Agricultural Society and reprinted in the Southern Literary Messenger, Holcombe made his case for slavery as a moral imperative for Christian civilization. For all of their merits, the Founding Fathers had mistakenly identified “equal liberty as the universal birth-right of humanity” and weakened the power of the state to impose the social restraints necessary to a well-ordered society. According to Holmes, Divine Providence intended that most of humanity should labor humbly so that a few might advance the bounds of science and culture. Just as slavery had allowed the ancient King Solomon to govern over God’s people wisely, so Southern slavery permitted the white South to perfect republican government. The common good of any society depended upon “a well defined subordination” between classes, such as existed under slavery. The social tumult of the North merely exposed a historical trend towards disorder in egalitarian societies. In concluding his address, Holcombe gravely reflected on the likelihood of disunion unless the North grasp the beneficent “true character” of Southern slavery.2

Indeed, as the presidential election of 1860 approached, Holcombe endorsed secession as the appropriate response to Republican victory. Addressing the citizens of Albemarle County in his speech The Election of a Black Republican President an Overt Act of Aggression on the Right of Property in Slaves, Holcombe argued that the slaveholding states should declare independence and form their own confederacy rather than “place the great interest of our society at the mercy of a sectional and fanatical majority.” In its very existence, the antislavery Republican Party served as a “standing menace of aggression upon [Southern] rights” to slave property as well as to a just social order. Although he held out a faint hope that the Union could yet survive with the help of pro-Southern constitutional amendments and the demise of the Republicans, Holcombe maintained that “the North has begun its work of converting African slaves into freemen, by converting Southern freemen into slaves.” This vigorous denunciation of the Republicans and defiant defense of slavery resonated within the community, particularly among the increasingly militant students at UVA.3

Nevertheless, many dissenters remained in both Albemarle County and on Grounds. Holcombe's fellow Law Professor John B. Minor reacted with horror to the address, provoking a bitter exchange with Mrs. Holcombe as Minor repudiated the “agitation of anarchy and civil war” which secession entailed. Although far from sympathetic to the Republicans, who he maligned as “a class of Ruffians,” he considered secession “political suicide” and maintained the Union as the South’s best hope for 
“happiness, tranquility, and liberty.” Even in the aftermath of Lincoln’s election, Minor feared that secessionists threatened the “ happiness of a mighty nation, & the destiny of millions... for mere pride, - stiff-necked pride!” and insisted that Union-loving patriots might resolve the impasse through compromise after some “cooling time.”4

Conversely, advocates of disunion sought to press their case before the public settled back into complacency. Holcombe, through his role as a delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention, trumpeted disunion with increasing vigor as momentum in the state swung back-and-forth between out-right secessionists and conditional Unionists in the winter of 1860-1861. In his address before the assembly in Richmond, Holcombe concisely articulated the crux of the pro-slavery secessionist case. While Northerners had grown ever more hostile to Southern slaveholding from the 1830s onward, he reminded his listeners that “antagonistic forces” in the South had produced “a revolution as complete” in the opposite direction. A new generation of Southern intellectuals had fostered the “universal conviction, that African slavery constitutes the wisest and most beneficent adjustment possible of the relations between the two races.” While earlier generations might have dreamed of gradually abolishing the institution, the white Virginians of 1861 were prepared to defend slavery “to the last extremity.”5

UVA’s students certainly seemed eager to take a stand in defense of the Southern right to slavery. In the weeks and months following the secession of seven states of the Deep South, students organized two militia companies, the “Sons of Liberty and the “Southern Guard,” burned Union General Winfield Scott in effigy, and raised the Confederate Stars and Bars over the Rotunda. Students denounced those who remained conditional Unionists, like John B. Minor, as decrepit and utterly out of touch with the reality facing the South. Minor, for his part, sadly reflected how his students hastened “to ‘follow a multitude’ to folly… in frantic ultraism.”6

Yet, in the aftermath of the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops, nearly all-white Virginians east of the Alleghany Mountains cast their lot with the Southern Confederacy. At UVA, the few remaining Unionist students turne out in favor of secession, encouraged by speeches from Professor Bledsoe, who took command of a third militia unit named the “Davis Guards.” Even committed conservative Unionists, like Minor, could not abide by Federal “coercion” of the seceding states and chose to defend slavery over the national flag. In the war that followed, slavery passed beyond the domain of intellectual discourse. Over the course of four bloody years, a decisive combination of enslaved people’s hands and Federal bayonets brought the institution crashing down. 


1. Alfred L. Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Vol. II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 509-510.

2. James P. Holcombe, “Is Slavery Consistent with Natural Law,” Southern Literary Messenger (December 1858). 5-6, 17-18, 20-21.

3. James P. Holcombe, The Election of a Black Republican President an Overt Act of Aggression on the Right of Property in Slaves: The South Urged to Adopt Concerted Action for Future Safety (Richmond: Chas. H. Whyne, 1860), 2, 7, 12. For UVA student attitudes towards secession in the aftermath of John Brown’s raid, see Peter S. Carmichael, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 117-123.

4. John B. Minor to Mary L. Minor, March 12, 1860, Minor and Wilson Family Papers; John B. Minor to Mary L. Minor, April 6, 1860, Minor and Wilson Family Papers; John B. Minor to Mary L. Minor, January 8, 1861, Minor and Wilson Family Papers; John B. Minor to Mary L. Minor, January 14, 1861.

5. “March 20, 1861,” Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13-May 1, ed. George H. Reese (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1965), 2:78.

6. Carmichael, The Last Generation, 121-147; Minor quoted in Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 115. See also, William A. Link, Roots of Seession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virignia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 239-244.