Primary Resource

Letter from St. George Tucker to Jeremy Belknap (November 27, 1795)

In this letter to the historian and clergyman Jeremy Belknap, of the Massachusetts Historical Society, St. George Tucker elaborates on his plan for the gradual emancipation of slaves in Virginia. The next year he published A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, In the State of Virginia , submitting it to the General Assembly to no effect.

Transcription from Original

Williamsburg, Nov. 27, 1795.

Sir,—It is with much pleasure that I am at length indulged with an opportunity of thanking you for your favor of the 19th of August, enclosing also a letter from Mr. Sullivan to yourself, and accompanied with some books. They arrived some weeks ago, when I was upon the circuit, and till within a few days past I have either been absent or too much engaged to indulge my wish of writing to you.

I shall indeed be happy, sir, if any thing contained in my letters to you may convince you that the existence of slavery in this country is no longer to be deemed a reproach to the present generation. Much happier should I be, could my enquiries lead to some practicable expedient by which that reproach may for ever be removed from us. Mr. Sullivan's letter, of which I have taken the liberty to take a copy, proposing to return the original by a private conveyance, contains some very just remarks. Strongly as he paints the danger and even the impracticability of the attempt, I hope to see the foundation of universal freedom in the United States laid in this State, by a plan for the gradual abolition of domestic slavery among us. My plan would, indeed, require a century to execute itself; but we ought not to be discouraged from doing good ultimately, because we cannot immediately effect it, or live to see its operation. Mr. Jefferson (and with him Mr. Sullivan seems to accord in sentiment) proposes that all persons born after a certain period shall be free. Mr. S. proposes that the persons so born, who would otherwise have been slaves, shall be held to service till 40, 30, or 21 years of age. This plan would execute itself in little more than half a century. I will not say that this is too speedy; but I incline to suppose that the more gradual the transition from slavery to freedom, the better qualified will the blacks be to enjoy their future condition, and the less violent will the prejudices of the whites be against them as their equals, &c. Besides, it is not improbable that a great proportion of the emancipated blacks would incline to migrate to other parts of the continent, where lands were better and cheaper, and where the distinction between the master and the slave had not taken such deep root as on the Atlantic coast; or where the climate was more congenial to their constitutions and habits. A plan whose operation is most gradual seems, therefore, preferable on many accounts. The agriculture of the lower country being now almost exclusively carried on by the blacks, time should be given to introduce a new system, and to prevent those inconveniences which would inevitably flow from the emancipation and dispersion of those who had been employed in it. Under these impressions, I have thought that the emancipation of the after-born should be confined to females and their descendants, and that those entitled

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to freedom should be held to service till the age of 30 years. This latter measure I would propose as some security for their being humanely treated in their infancy; for, otherwise, I am persuaded they would be much exposed for want of due care. The operation of this plan will be best seen by recurring to the aid of figures.

The number of slaves in Virginia, by the census of 1792, being 292,427, we may conclude that at this period they are little short of 300,000. Let it be supposed that their numbers will be such, when a law should pass for the gradual abolition of slavery. If the inhabitants of America double in less than 30 years, as Dr. Franklin calculates, the negroes, whose fertility and increase is immense, may well be supposed to double in that time.

The number of negroes 30 years hence will therefore be 600,000. Sixty years hence they will be 1,200,000. In ninety years they will be 2,400,000. In thirty years, one-half the present generation may be supposed to be extinct. There will then be 150,000 ante-nati, and 450,000 post-nati. The mean increase of the latter during this period will be 15,000 annually, of which number one-half may be presumed to be males not entitled to freedom, born during the first 16 years, and one-fourth of them born in the latter 14 years, when the emancipated females have begun to breed. The numbers will then stand thus:—

Ante-nati slaves 150,000
Post-nati, males born in first 16 years 120,000
Males born of ante-natæ females 52,000
  322,500 slaves.
Post- natæ females and their children, free-born 277,500
  600,000

At this period, the effect of emancipation would first manifest itself by the annual liberation of 9,250 females for 16 years, and the like number of both sexes for the remaining 14 years of the second period of 30 years. Their whole number, in 45 years from the commencement of the plan, would be 138,750, nearly.

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Pursuing the train of calculation above, the numbers in 45 years would stand thus:—

Ante-nati slaves, one-fifth of their present number 60,000
Post-nati, males as above 120,000 + 52,500 172,500
Males born of ante-natæ females within last 15 years 13,125
Emancipated post-nati, over 30 years of age 138,750
Post-nati under 30 years of age 515,000
  900,000

In 60 years, the whole of the present race may be calculated to be extinct. Of those born in the first period of 30 years, we may also infer that one-half will be extinct. Their numbers will stand thus:—

One-half slaves born during first period of 30 years 86,250
One-half post-nati free-born during that period 138,125
Slaves born during the 2d period of 30 years 13,125
Post-nati under 30 years, and not fully emancipated 961,875
  1,200,000

In 90 years, those only born after the second period being supposed to be living,

The number of slaves would then be reduced to 13,125
Three-fifths of the remainder may be supposed to be under 30 years of age, and in a state of service 1,432,125
  1,445,250 in service.
Two-fifths above 30 years of age, and absolutely free 954,750
Total blacks 2,400,000

The continual migrations from this State to the Western country, if slavery be not there prohibited, will render this calcula-

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tion infinitely too large. Were we to admit that it was double what it ought to be, the number of blacks would even then be immense; and if in a state of slavery, or of unorganized emancipation, truly formidable. One or other of these evils is utterly unavoidable, unless we have resolution enough shortly to set about the remedy. I am therefore almost resolved to publish something upon the subject; but, before I do, it would give me pleasure to hear your own, Mr. Sullivan's, or any other of your friends' sentiments upon the subject. In my former letter, I believe I mentioned that I thought good policy required that blacks and mulattoes should be excluded from all the valuable rights of citizenship, such as capacity for holding offices, lands, &c. Narrow as this policy may appear, I am persuaded it is necessary for the preservation of the peace of society. I would also disarm them, and, by denying them those privileges here which they might hope to acquire elsewhere, endeavour to prompt them to migrate from hence. The Floridas, Louisiana, and the country south of the mouth of the Mississippi, would, I should hope, afford a continual drain for them. At that distance, they could never be formidable to us, and would possess a climate better adapted to their natural temperature. The number annually arriving at the age of emancipation being small compared with their whole numbers, the loss of their labor, should they emigrate, would be less sensibly felt.

The operation of our late law of descents, by which lands are divided among the children, and even among collaterals in a remote degree, where there are no children, by dividing inheritances, would compel many to labour who now seem only born to consume the fruits of the earth. The progress of both laws being gradual and coeval, it might be hoped that a desirable change of sentiment would accompany this operation. If the blacks should, in a century, appear more capable of cultivation and improvement than our present prejudices will permit us to believe they are, the existing generation of whites may then find it good policy to relax from the strictness of those measures which during the progress of their metamorphosis from slavery might be thought proper. From the preceding sketch, it will appear that, if the policy of holding those to servitude till the age of 30, who may be born among us, should be adhered to, we should never be in want of labourers, since the number under

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that age would always be much greater than the present number of slaves among us, which gives to this plan the advantage over any other which I have heard of.

I beg that you will apologize to Mr. Sullivan for the liberty I have taken in copying his letter to you. I shall return the original by the first private conveyance. Any further communications from him, yourself, or any other friend, would be highly acceptable to me.

Permit me to thank you for the books sent. I now enclose a bank-bill for the amount, and will thank you to send me Mr. Sullivan's History of Maine and Williams's History of Vermont, and any other literary productions which you may think worthy of attention. Periodical publications of all kinds are, I think, worthy of encouragement; for in a new country, as ours is, they must be mean indeed, if they do not contain some valuable information. From what I have now said, you will perceive that I am an advocate for all collections, without much regard to selection: we are too young to aim at, and perhaps to desire, the latter. The plan of your Historical Society pleases me much, and I make no doubt but its object will in time be amply fulfilled. I wish most cordially it were in my power to contribute any thing worthy of notice to such a compilation. But I have to lament a life spent very differently from that manner, which a difference of situation would have enabled me to pursue. The support of a large and increasing family necessarily occupied my attention almost from my first entrance into life, and the task has been too great for my exertions the greater part of my life. My time has therefore been employed in action rather than in study and research. The partiality of my friends has indeed placed me in a situation which renders the latter now as necessary as the former; for the former is still made necessary by my public functions, which call me from home full half the year. Pardon me, sir, for this piece of egotism. It is, however, necessary, in order to apologize to you for a seeming indifference to that honour for which I am persuaded I am indebted to your friendly opinion. Believe me that I should rejoice, could I persuade myself that I were worthy of a place among the Corresponding Members of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In a separate letter, directed to you as their Corresponding Secretary, I have therefore declined the election, from a conscious-

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ness of my own unworthiness; and I beg you will do me the favour to represent that sentiment as the only reason for my doing it. If, however, such a conduct should appear liable to be construed into a disrespect for the Society, be pleased for the present to suppress the communication of that letter.*

Since my last, your favor dated May 8th, with several pamphlets, has been received, for which accept my best thanks. By a private conveyance, I shall send you one or two pamphlets, among which will be a 2d copy of the letter to Dr. Morse. I should be happy to see some reparation from his pen for the injustice done to the character of the inhabitants of this little place. If Mr. Webb be still in Boston, be pleased to make my compliments to him. Mr. Hust I have never seen, since he favoured me with an introduction to you. I believe he is in Philadelphia. Believe me, with the greatest respect and esteem, and with a grateful sense of your favours, sir, Your most obedient and obliged

S. G. Tucker

* Dr. Belknap did suppress the letter, and Judge Tucker's name was allowed to remain on the roll of the Society. In a list of members of the Society from its institution, prefixed to 4 Collections, I., 1852, Judge Tucker's name appears as "Hon. Henry St. George Tucker," and it so stands in a later list. This does not agree with the earlier record of the name in our volumes, and is believed to be an error. A son of Judge Tucker bore that name.—Eds.