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Book Review


The South Condemning Itself: Humanity and Property in American Slavery, Book Review: People Without Rights, 68 Chicago-Kent Law Review 1391 (1993)


Abolitionism was not the monopoly of the North. With the examples of France and Santo Domingo as warning, and conscience as nag, there was a time in the 1790's when liberal men of Virginia thought the gradual emancipation of American slaves should commence. It was not a radical plan. Only the next generation would be born free, and then females only. But each mother would devise freedom to all her children. St. George Tucker published his plan for gradual abolition in 1796, agreeing with William Blackstone that no convincing moral argument could justify slavery, warning that slavery would wash away belief in the inalienability of freedom. Tucker's plan attracted the attention due a judge of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and Professor of Law at the College of William and Mary.

Tucker confessed that he did not know the future after emancipation. He laughed at colonization schemes as impractical, and doubted that his Virginia neighbors would accept free blacks as coparticipants in political society, or even be content to grant them civil rights. But "some middle course" must be possible, he put, between slavery and cocitizenship, for the present generation of men not used to living together as equals. The language of rights need not exclude compromise. Whites were unwilling to receive blacks in political and civil society, but this did not mean blacks must be held in bondage. Basic rights of personality could be protected; emancipated blacks could have the right to contract and lease property, the right of personal security, and the right to keep the product of their own effort. Many blacks would choose to emigrate, Tucker supposed, but "[t]heir personal rights, and their property, though limited, would whilst they remain among us be under the protection of the laws." In one extraordinary phrase, Tucker suggested that the prejudice of his own heart and of his white neighbors might reform. "Under such an arrangement we might reasonably hope, that time would either remove from us a race of men, whom we wish not to incorporate with us, or obliterate those prejudices, which now form an obstacle to such incorporation."

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