What Would Jefferson Do?By WILLIAM W. FREEHLING
Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
Library of CongressThe Jeffersons, going back to the patriarch, embodied all the contradictions of Upper South slaveholders. The author of the Declaration of Independence was also a founding father of procrastination on slavery. At times Jefferson seemed a determined proponent of abolition. He termed slavery an “assemblage of horrors.” He called “nothing … more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be freed.” Otherwise, he feared that “his people” would free themselves in a slave revolt. He thus winced that “if something is not done, and done soon, we shall be the murderers of our own children.”
But he found emancipating slaves without removing freedmen from the country even more frightening than risking black insurrectionists. In his climactic proposal to effect safe emancipation, presented in 1824, Jefferson suggested a constitutional amendment authorizing the use of profits from federal land sales to free slaves born in the future — and then deport them. But he never urged this plan of delayed emancipation publicly, and he privately shuddered that “we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, or safely let him go.”
Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson FoundationFive years after the patriarch’s death, the 1831 Nat Turner revolt impelled his executor and eldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, to urge his grandfather’s allegedly safe alternative in the Virginia legislature. Randolph’s bill would have emancipated slaves born eight years hence, after they became adults, and then deported them. This racist species of antislavery would have left Virginia enslaved for at least 80 years. After spending two nervous weeks debating the compromised scheme and listening to non-slaveholders from western Virginia cheer for Randolph, the legislators voted 71-54 against an even more watered-down antislavery proposal. (Yet the state had hardly united behind permanent slavery: forty-three percent of the delegates had voted to seek some sort of legislative end to slavery.)
But Thomas Jefferson Randolph wasn’t the family’s only scion to join the debate: In late 1860 and early 1861, after the Lower South had seceded, Jefferson’s youngest grandson, emerged as a vociferous skeptic of slavery — and, surprisingly, Unionism. During this latest and worst Virginia antebellum crisis, George Wythe Randolph, 26 years younger than Thomas Jefferson Randolph, scorned more than his eldest brother’s (and his grandfather’s) slavery apologetics and tremulous antislavery proposals. He also loathed the pointless debating that occupied the Virginia secession convention, which met for two months before reaching a consensus.
Library of CongressDuring what seemed to him the convention’s interminable talk, George Wythe Randolph suffered through other delegates’ unending predictions, usually absurd to him, about where the spinning world might stop. Would Abraham Lincoln let the South secede? Would Lower South seceders return to the Union? It was useless, he said in a March 16 speech, to debate whether the Lower South should have seceded or not. The Confederacy now existed as a cold fact, good or bad, and the old Union was no more. “We are not assembled to consider,” he emphasized, “whether we will remain as we were,” in a Union with 15 slave states, “but whether we shall rest in the new and perilous” Union “in which we now find ourselves,” with only eight slave states. In other words, once the Lower South states had seceded, the only issue for the Upper South, which republic should we join? (Or, as the question evolved after Fort Sumter, whose soldiers should we kill?)
Randolph considered these non-choices. He trembled over Virginia’s fate if the convention chose the new federal Union. He scoffed at the fantasy, held by many of the state’s Unionists, that Southerners would bring the “Northern people … right after a while” on slavery’s blessings. “Sir, they are much more likely to make us wrong than we are to bring them right. Their anti-slavery is as old as slavery itself. … It has all the signs of a great mental movement. The opposite sentiment with us … is comparatively a thing of yesterday — it has not been inculcated in early life. … It has hardly had time to be understood and appreciated. … To dash it now against the iron-bound fanaticism of the North would be the height of folly.”
The roots of Randolph’s complex perspective were in part economic. Although born (and later buried) on his grandfather’s Monticello plantation, he had rejected Jefferson’s qualms about cities no less than about slavery. Where the grandfather had called urban spaces sores on the body politic and Thomas Jefferson Randolph presided over a plantation near Monticello, George Wythe Randolph had become an important Richmond lawyer.
In the Virginia convention, this urbanite denied “that there is an irrepressible conflict between white and slave labor.” Instead, “the true competitors of our laboring whites are the gigantic corporations of the North.” Northern industrialists had used their high tariffs and head start to crush Richmond manufacturers and their white employees. The problem would worsen in the new federal Union. But in the new Southern Confederacy, with its underdeveloped industries and its “protection from Northern industry,” secession will stimulate a vast takeoff in demand for Richmond industrial products. Even the rural and nonslaveholding western Virginians, he added, after receiving “protection from Northern industry” would become “what they ought to be — the manufacturers and miners of a great nation.” These and other economic emphases consumed more pages than Randolph’s warnings about Lincoln’s immediate menace, a fact that should give pause to oversimplifiers who think that only the very important fears about slavery impelled disunion.
What most provoked Randolph’s impatience was the lack of a firm decision. Like capitalists throughout the nation, he could hardly bear a moment more of this counterproductive delay, this killing uncertainty. “Are we to stand for an indefinite period” he agonized, “with our industry paralyzed, our people feverish and impatient, our manufacturers ready to emigrate?”
With his certitude that secession alone could be viable, and his conviction that this latest procrastination was as destructive as his family’s long paralysis had been, Randolph stood ready to join other frustrated spirits in extralegal action if a chance arose, even before a convention vote took place. He did not know that in exactly a month, events would unleash his and his compatriots’ lethal exasperation.
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Sources: William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, eds, “Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union”; Freehling, “Road to Disunion” (2 volumes); George Green Shackelford, “George Wythe Randolph and the Confederate Elite.”
William W. Freehling is a senior fellow at the Virginia Center for Humanities and the author of “The Road to Disunion” and “Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union.”