Primary Resource

Excerpt from the Richmond Enquirer (January 12, 1832)

In "Proscription of the Press!", published in the Richmond Enquirer on January 12, 1832, the editors defend an article they published January 7, 1832 arguing that the House of Delegates take steps toward the emancipation of Virginia's enslaved people.

Transcription from Original

Proscription of the Press!

Our oldest readers will do us justice to say, that we had forborne to touch the subject of colored population, for 27 years. We felt that none is more delicate and none more beset with difficulties. But at length the outbreaking in Southampton spreads horror though the Commonwealth. We saw the floodgates of discussion for the first time raised in consequence of this unparalleled event.—We saw meetings of citizens held. Memorials were addressed to the Legislature.—And the Press, too, broke the silence of fifty years. And we have seen the whole subject refrred to a Committee of the House of Delegates for their best consideration. And what is more remarkable in the History of the Legislature, we now see the whole subject ripped up and discussed with open doors, and in the presence of a crowded gallery and lobby—Even the press itself hesitating to publish the Debates of the body. All these things were indeed new in our history. And nothing else could have prompted them, but the bloody massacre in the month of August.

As soon as the discussion, which began in the feelings, was propagated by the understandings, of the people, it took a wide range. It covered the whole surface of the subject. It looked to the condition of the free man of colour; to the police of the slaves; and to the diminution of the evil. It looked to the emigration of the whites; the gradual multiplication of the colored people; the increasing depreciation of our landed property; and the reduction of our good old Commonwealth to the grade of a third or fourth State in the Union.—It was in this condition of things, that we catechized ourselves upon the course we were bound to pursue. We might have remained silent. We might have pursued that neutral course, with which the young Earl of Suffolk once reproached Lord Chatham, when that unrivalled Orator declared upon the floor of Parliament of England, in the little pet very unworthy of himself, that if "he had been consulted by ministers, he could have saved them from their errors." "Had I seen a dagger (exclaimed the young speaker,) presented to the bosom of my mother, and to me my country is dearer than my mother, I should have deemed myself the most unworthy of her sons, if I had waited to be asked to ward off the blow!" We we then to seek refuge in the shade? Were we thus to avoid the censure of the malevolent; and the criticism of better men? Silence indeed was the dictate of prudence—but, if we had pusillanimously yielded to her suggestions, there was such a thing as Conscience, whose "small, still voice" we must hear; and whose reproaches we could not stifle. We determined, therefore, to throw ourselves upon the liberal construction of our Countrymen—to throw ourselves upon that manly good sense, which had so kindly supported us in all our difficulties—and to make one last appeal upon this most delicate, this most difficult, this most important of all the subjects of State concern.—If the article we penned on that occasion be expressed with any feeling, it is because we deeply felt what we said. If it expresses too much, we are yet to be made sensible of it. If it wants moderation, or discretion, we confess we do not see it. A more moderate, more guarded, or respectful article we could scarcely have penned upon the subject—but, as it is before our readers, they will judge it for themselves.

This article appeared in the Enquirer of Saturday last. We had done what we thought to be our duty—and were content—Not so, however, was Mr. Nathaniel Alexander of the county of Mecklenburg. On Monday evening, we received from him the following note, to which we have subjoined our very brief reply:

[Copy.]

9th January, 1832

Messrs. Editors:—Owing to the late publications in your paper advising the gradual emancipation of our slaves, you will discontinue sending the Enquirer to my Post Office, and consider me no longer a subscriber to a paper so reckless in its course, and so regardless of the safety and property of others.

Yrs. &c.

Nath. Alexander

Messrs. Ritchie & Cook, Editors Enquirer.

Reply—(On the same paper.)

Sir—Your paper is discontinued with pleasure. A note so "reckless" in its assertions as this, is fit only for the hands which penned it. We have no further occasion for it.

Ritchie & Cook.

It seems, however, that Mr. A. was not content—with this laconic correspondence—for, on Tuesday Evening, he publishes in the Whig of this City the following Address:

To the People of the Senatorial District composed of Halifax and Mecklenburg Counties.

Fellow-citizens: In assuming to myself the task of addressing you, upon the much agitated subject of the slaves, it is certain that I shall bring upon myself the displeasure of the Editor of the Enquirer and his emancipating correspondents.—Slavery has existed in our Government from its origin, and has never been considered by myself so horrible or inconsistent with Republican institutions as some gentlemen imagine, and recently the Editor of the Enquirer. My purpose, however, is not to meddle with the abstract question of slavery, but with the notions of gentlemen about the emancipation of our slaves. All sane men admit that, for want of means, it is utterly impracticable to effect any safe scheme of emancipation. It is, too, generally known to the slave population of Virginia that, owing to the late insurrection in the county of Southampton, efforts are making to commence a gradual system of emancipation; which cannot, by admission on all hands, take effect by any act of the present Legislature; so that the agitation of that question can only have a tendency to stimulate the blacks to fresh acts of violence, with the hope of obtaining their freedom by exciting the fears of the timid, and by the aid of modern philanthropists.

I consider Editors of newspapers advising any change in the relations between master and slave, dangerous to the community, and must necessarily have the effect of exciting bad feelings among the slaves. If nothing will be done, as the Editors of the Enquirer appear to think, why agitate the subject? Not that any good is to grow out of it. For I think it must be apparent to all that it will have a different effect. The Editors of the Enquirer say in their last No. of the 7th insti., "We are no fanatics"—the drunken man says, "I am not drunk." The main object of my address is to call your attention, and I hope the attention of Eastern Virginia. The slave-holder asks only to be let alone, by those who have not property in common with them—fanatics, northern and domestic modern philanthropists. As individuals, I am more pleased with the Editors of the Enquirer than otherwise; and have always agreed with them in their Federal politics, but they, like most of the Editors, like to find out how the current sets; and as they, no doubt, think the wind now blows westwardly, have trimmed their sails accordingly, with the hope of entering a harbor of safety; but when it is too late, they will find the Western ports tempestuous and unsafe moorings for their frail bark, so that they will either be wrecked there, or founder on their return passage to the East.

It is with reluctance that I have addressed you upon this delicate subject; and should not have done so, but for the discussion of it in the Enquirer; knowing as I do, the injurious effect it must necessarily have upon our property.

Your fellow-citizen, Nath'l Alexander.

We shall not stop to enquire by what right Mr. A. "assumes to himself" the office of calling together the meetings of Eastern Virginia: And yet we might safely ask where are his pretensions; by what talents, or public services, he lays claim to this distinction!—Is it by virtue of the "little brief authority in which he is dressed"—and in the exercise of which, his partial friends ma have discovered his transcendent merits, while they have yet escaped the eyes of his colleagues or his countrymen?

But we do ask, how it comes to pass, that because as free and independent Editors, we have expressed our sentiments upon a subject, dearly connected with the prosperity of Virginia, we are to be proscribed—meetings are to be held—and a bold attempt is to be made to muzzle the Liberty of the Press? What crying sins have we committed, that the vengeance of the People is thus to be invoked upon our bodies? We have expressed our honest opinions in the most moderate manner—and for this the Liberty of the Press is "to be cloven down."

Suppose this gratuitous recommendation carried into full effect—suppose the People, who are well enough able to judge for themselves, should follow the advice of this most "potent, grave and reverend seignior"—suppose everything—this paper put down—the Enquirer stript of all its support; and after weathering so many storms, abandoned to shipwreck, because its Editors were honest enough to speak the truth, to speak it in the most discreet manner, to speak it for once upon a subject of all others the most important to their native land; what follows? The Virginians had better look out at once for such men as the servile freedmen of Old Rome, and not the independent freemen of their Republic, to conduct their papers.—If any one man, be he who he may, whether Alexander the Great, or Alexander the Coppersmith, or the "honorable" Senator from Mecklenburg, can at any time raise the cry of persecution—and at his bidding, "Crucify him—Crucify him"—what guaranty can our politicians have of the liberty of the Press? It will degenerate into "sounding brass, or a thinkling cymbal"—the capricious slave of every popular will—without the honesty to speak the truth; or the spirit to vindicate the rights of the people.

We shall not analyse at any length the statements of Mr. A.—He says, it "has existed in our Government from its origin."—But what says Mr. Jefferson in 1814, in an eloquent letter now before us (never yet laid before the public?) "The quiet and monotonous course of colonial life had been disturbed by no alarm"—"Yet the hour of—is advancing, in the march of time; and whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds, or—-, is a leaf on history not yet turned over."—We forbear repeating the strong language of Mr. Jefferson.

Mr. A. declares, that it "has never been considered so horrible or inconsistent with Republican institutions, as some gentlemen imagine."—What would he say, if we were to repeat Mr. J's opinion in this very letter?—But Mr. A. does not do us justice.—We have never presented the subject at all as regards the slaves. We expressly declared, that we were no fanatics—no Amis de noirs—that our regard was for the whites only; for the great interests of Virginia herself.

He affirms, that "all sane men admit that, for want of means, it is utterly impracticable to effect any safe scheme of emancipation." If Mr. A. erect himself in the standard of sanity, what miserable lunatics were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison!—Be assured, the lazy or the timid man is as bad as the "drunken man." He exclaims that "nothing can be done" –and he does nothing.—We shall not now go into an examination of the means we have at our command.—It is a discussion, that is more suitable to the legislature than to the Press. We have respectfully called their attention to the subject—it is one that must be touched with a delicate hand—and Mr. A. would do more mischief by provoking a long, and a passionate and public discussion, than if we were to write a thousand such articles as he has denounced. That article can "stimulate to no fresh acts of violence." It may set the wise men of the land to thinking, and doing something hereafter,—if not at this time—and this is all that it could do—if it were left to itself.

But he says, that those "who have not property in common with the slave-holders, ought to let them alone."—And in another place, he speaks of our being "regardless of the safety and property" of others. As to lives, we may truly say, that we have as many persons, dear to us, to take care of, as the gentleman from Mecklenburg—and as to property, though we may not have quite as many slaves as he has, yet some of those that we do own may be as valuable to us as his are to him. We may add, too, that there are persons, the dearest to us, who at least own as much of this sort of property as he does. But does the gentleman really think, that we are indifferent to the rights and property of the people, among whom we have lived all our lives? Wherein does he find this evidence of our recklessness about the property of others? Not a slave should be loosed from his bonds, until he is fully paid for, and willingly given up by his master. We would not take a step but upon this confition.—But we think the legislators of this land, who have received the petition of the people, and selected a Committee for considering them, might well excuse the press for breathing some solicitude on the occasion, and respectfully asking whether such means cannot be found—aye, and for saying, as we did say, "Means sure, but gradual, systematic, but discreet, ought to be adopted, for reducing the mass of evil, which is pressing upong the South, and will still more press upon her, the longer it is put off."

As to the motives attributed to us by Mr. Alexander, we scorn to give an answer. Our course has been before the public for the last twenty-seven years, and they will judge us. If the wind now blows to the West, we have been too late in finding it out or availing ourselves of it. For, though we hold our Western citizens as brethren; and Virignia as always "one and indivisible," yet no paper has been more opposed on federal questions, and their favorite measures, than this one.—We cannot yield our principles to the East, or to the West—Dear as is Eastern Virginia to us, we ought not to yield our principles even to her.

"The Western course seemed not definitively chalked out. In the Debate in the H of D on the 14th, one of the Western Members thus liberally declared himself—"

"Mr. Williams, of Harrison, as a Western member, rose to stsate that on this important topic. Western members would give their Eastern brethren a carte blanche, with the sincere hope that some efficient measure might be adopted, towards which they (the Western members) would give their most hearty co-operation. They had often been indebted to the liberality of Eastern gentlemen in carrying objects in which the West alone were interested, and they would reciprocate the good will thus displayed, by going the whole with the East in any measure they might devise on this subject."

It is singular enough, that the paper which contains Mr. A's appeal in Eastern Virginia, places under his address, a long and angry article against us, for our supposed hostility to western interests—an hostility that we have never felt—interests, that we would support by State means, as far as any man.