Tucker began to research and write his Dissertation in 1795, and it took him more than a year to complete. He began by corresponding with Jeremy Belknap of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a clergyman and historian whom Tucker hoped could tell him how Massachusetts had managed the peaceful abolition of slavery. Belknap passed along the professor's questions to a number of prominent correspondents. Several of them noted that the end of slavery came not with a formal decree, but with the interpretation—or in the view of one correspondent, James Winthrop, the "misconstruction"—of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. That document declares: "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties." Belknap synthesized these various responses into a report.
In replying to this report, Tucker in effect provided a draft for his Dissertation on Slavery. He included in his response a plan of abolition that he thought his fellow Virginians might accept. By proposing a slow-moving course of action, Tucker hoped that he could convince the world—as he wrote in a letter to Belknap in 1795—"that the existence of slavery in this country is no longer to be deemed a reproach to the present generation."
Tucker begins the essay by noting the "incompatibility" of slavery with the natural rights principles of the American Revolution. He therefore finds it impossible to justify the enslavement of black people "unless we first degrade them below the rank of human beings, not only politically, but also physically and morally." Unwilling to take this step, Tucker argues that the time had come to accept the "moral truth" of the wrongness of slavery.
With these considerations in mind, Tucker sets forth a very complicated plan of gradual emancipation. He pitches it as a revised version of gradual emancipation plans used in several northern states. First, all females born to slaves would serve twenty-eight-year indentures, after which their employers would give them twenty dollars and two suits of clothes. Children born to those serving such indentures must "be bound to service by the overseers of the poor, until they shall attain the age of twenty-one years." This same agency would receive 15 percent of their wages when hired out for the short term, and 10 percent of their wages if they received an apprenticeship lasting for a year or more. If the master refused to pay freedom wages upon the arrival of the twenty-eighth year, he would have to pay the court a five-dollar fee.
Tucker's plan denied freed slaves their basic civil liberties, including the right to keep weapons, to serve on juries, to testify against or marry white people, or even to write a will. Tucker justifies this course of action in the same way he had justified the continuance of slavery: by employing natural rights arguments and by noting the dangers created by the Haitian Revolution. Tucker argues that when dealing with people entering "into a state of society," those already in the society have a right to "admit or exclude" anyone they wish. Thus he finds it consonant with natural rights to deny freed slaves the basic rights of citizens. He argues that the "recent scenes transacted" in Haiti "are enough to make one shudder with the apprehension of realizing similar calamities in this country." Finding it impossible to propose a plan of emancipation that does not "either encounter, or accommodate [it]self to prejudice," Tucker proposes a course that would negotiate what he saw as an acceptable mean between the evils of slavery and a mass emancipation that would "turn loose a numerous, starving, and enraged banditti upon the innocent descendants of their former oppressors."
Many scholars have emphasized the connection between Tucker's Dissertation and the ideology of natural rights. In All Honor to Jefferson? The Virginia Slavery Debates and the Positive Good Thesis (2008), Erik S. Root sees Tucker's essay as evidence of the seriousness and consistency with which the Founding Fathers took these ideas. Similarly, the historian Phillip Hamilton, in an article published in 1998, argued that, "Tucker sought a middle ground on which to reconcile liberalism's twin beliefs in basic human equality and the sanctity of all property." In other words, Tucker wanted to find a way to end slavery without defrauding any creditors. Hamilton also places Tucker's Dissertation in the context of a movement away from landed property as the basis of elite power in Virginia. Instead of this traditional mode of social organization, Tucker tried to base his independence on professional training for himself and his children.
In an article published in 2006, the legal historian Paul Finkelman assigns both praise and blame to Tucker's Dissertation. On the one hand, "No other southerner of his generation offered a concrete proposal for ending slavery." On the other hand, Tucker presented "a recipe for creating a permanent peasantry that Virginia's landowners could exploit perpetually." Tucker did so, however, in the hope that his proposal would "make Virginia a white person's state in the long run." Finkelman argues that if Tucker had followed this ideology through to conclusion he would have realized that a black peasantry also presented a threat to the self-preservation of white Virginians. "The peasants would provide more expensive labor but would not provide much greater safety." Specifically, Virginia elites would find it easier to control slaves than they would to control a dispossessed class of free people.
Historians have long noted other ironies of this type surrounding the Dissertation. Winthrop Jordan, for instance, recognized Tucker's essay as "startlingly portentous." Tucker had called for a plan of emancipation that would take one hundred years. "A century later the Negro was free," Jordan wrote in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro (1968), "and in many areas of the South in a condition which, in an informal way, materially resembled the one he proposed." Tucker thus made the point that natural rights do not always lead to civil rights, a lesson that has proved a bitter pill for Americans. Similarly, the historian Gordon S. Wood has noticed the unintended consequences of the natural rights critique of slavery. It forced those who defended slavery to couch their position in racial terms. In Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009), Wood argues, therefore, that, "The anti-slavery movement that emerged out of the Revolution inadvertently produced racism in America."
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Vanderford, C. A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia (1796). (2015, February 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/A_Dissertation_on_Slavery_With_a_Proposal_for_the_Gradual_Abolition_of_It_In_the_State_of_Virginia_1796.
- MLA Citation:
Vanderford, Chad. "A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia (1796)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 Feb. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 26, 2014 | Last modified: February 4, 2015