Considering William and Mary's History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas Roderick Dew

50 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2008


Amidst the recent apologies for slavery from the legislatures of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama, there is significant controversy over the wisdom of investigations of institution's connections to slavery and apologies for those connections. The divide over attitudes towards apologies falls along racial lines. This paper briefly looks to the controversy on both sides of the apology debates.

Among those questions about investigations of the past, Universities occupy a special place. Efforts at recovery of their connections to slavery include a study released by graduate students at Yale in 2001, Brown University's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, and the University of Virginia's board of visitors' spring 2007 apology for that institution's connections to slavery.

That leads to a question about whether other schools ought to consider a self-investigation. William and Mary is a particularly good place to ask such questions. This paper focuses on Thomas R. Dew, first a professor, then president at William and Mary, from 1828 to his early death in 1846. Dew is the author of Review of the Debates in the Virginia Legislature, one of the most reprinted arguments on slavery in the years leading into Civil War. He is also the author of one of the most comprehensive and important histories published in the United States in the nineteenth century, A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners and Institutions of Ancient and Modern Nations. Dew focused on considerations of utility and history to suggest the impracticality of gradual emancipation. Through Dew we can gauge the intellectual connections to slavery, then ask the important question, what - if anything - is an appropriate institutional response today? We can use him to begin a discussion of the virtues and pitfalls of apologies and to assess the value of talk of the connections to the past.

Keywords: slavery, apology, universities, proslavery thought, antebellum legal history

Suggested Citation

Brophy, Alfred L., Considering William and Mary's History with Slavery: The Case of President Thomas Roderick Dew. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 16, p. 1091, 2008, U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 1122457, Available at SSRN:

Alfred L. Brophy (Contact Author)

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