Primary Resource

Letter from St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap (August 13, 1797)

In a letter to the historian and clergyman Jeremy Belknap, of the Massachusetts Historical Society, St. George Tucker attempts to explain why his plan to end slavery in Virginia, published as A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia (1796), was ignored by the General Assembly.

Transcription from Original

Norfolk, August 13, 1797.

My dear Sir,—It is some months since I had the pleasure of hearing from you, a circumstance which I sometimes fear I may ascribe to the failure in the re-establishment of your health; that I may be mistaken in this idea I most sincerely wish.

I embrace the present opportunity of enclosing you a copy of my proposal for the abolition of slavery in this country: surrounded by difficulties on every side, but convinced that mistaken self-interest and prejudice were the most formidable enemies I had to encounter, I endeavored to elude, rather than invite, their attacks. With this view, I proposed the most gradual plan that could possibly eventually produce the desired effect. I guarded it with every restriction that I supposed timidity or prejudice could insist on; and I endeavoured to lull avarice itself to sleep by demonstrating the slow progress and insencible effects of my proposal. A copy of the pamphlet was set with a respectful letter addressed to the speakers of both houses of our Assembly. In the House of Delegates, a motion was made to send the letter and its enclosure back to the author, which produced, I believe, a warm debate, which ended with their being suffered to lie on the table. The advocates for the motion had certainly never read or heard the plan read. From the Speaker of the Senate I received such a letter as ind

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uced a supposition in my mind that the reception was very different in that house. But they have not the power to originate any bill in the Senate: the matter therefore rested with a civil acknowledgement, &c.

Notwithstanding this ill success, I ought not to be discouraged. Not a copy of the pamphlet had been transmitted to Virginia (except four to myself, two of which were lost) when it was presented to the House. Nobody, I believe, had read it; nobody could explain its contents. Nobody was prepared to meet the blind fury of the enemies of freedom; and our Assembly was at that time split into factions, debating upon federal politics, and neither side probably wished to weaken its own influence by a division of sentiment among its partizans on any point whatever. But, when I thus express myself, I must be understood as not cherishing the smallest hope of advancing a cause so dear to me as the abolition of slavery. Actual suffering will one day, perhaps, open the oppressors' eyes. Till that happens, they will shut their ears against argument.

Accept, sir, my sincerest wishes for the perfect restoration of your health, and for the enjoyment of every sublunary blessing, and believe me, with unfeigned sentiments of esteem and friendship,

Your most obedient humble servant,

S. G. Tucker