The Jurisprudence of Slavery, Freedom, and Union at Washington College, 1831-1861
76 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2017
Date Written: April 22, 2017
In the thirty years leading into Civil War faculty and students at Washington College and the Virginia Military Institute discussed ideas about adherence to Union, the legal justification of slavery, slaves’ claims to freedom, and jurisprudence. Their discussion of jurisprudence included the need for adherence to law, and the roles of morality, sentiment, and utility in law. This article draws upon public addresses, like graduation speeches, at Washington College and VMI, to recover the sophisticated legal ideas in circulation in Lexington.
Washington College was a place of Whig values of Union, adherence to law, and concern for utility. Speakers supported common Whig ideas, including the need for republican government to check excesses of democracy and a focus on the ways that a well-ordered society and respect for property and Christianity led to moral and economic progress. It also moved from a place where faculty held Enlightenment ideas about freedom – even if circumscribed by economic reality – to a place where slavery was embraced, partly because it was part of the Constitution.
By contrast, at the Virginia Military Institute, pro-slavery and pro-secession ideas were more prevalent. The constitutional visions at moderate Washington College and pro-secession institutions at more radical places, like the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and the College of Charleston, reflected the wide range of Southern ideas about Union, slavery, utility, sentiment, Republicanism, and constitutionalism. Those ideas framed the Southern response to political changes, as Southerners discussed the mandates of jurisprudence and the Constitution in the years leading into War.
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