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CHAPTER 15 | Document 54

St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap

29 June 1795MHS Collections, 5th ser., 3:407--10

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 deeprooted 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 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 of ten 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 [Volume 1, Page 560] 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 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 coelum"! but the 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.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 54
The University of Chicago Press

Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.