« Twiqbal and accrual | Main | Entry Level Hiring: The 2021 Report - Final (?) Call for Information »

Monday, May 10, 2021

Bushrod Washington on Slavery

The pandemic is delaying the editing process for my Bushrod Washington biography, but I'm still hopeful that the book will come out next year. I recently transcribed most of a draft letter from the Justice that contains some notable observations on slavery that I want to share.  

The letter is undated, but must have been written after 1816 because the American Colonization Society is mentioned. The intended recipient is also unknown, but the person was someone who sent Washington an essay proposing that Congress exercise the power of eminent domain to free the nation's slaves and compensate the slaveowners. (This is, in fact, what was done in the District of Columbia during the Civil War.) I cannot say if Justice Washington's response was sent or merely drafted.

After the praising the essay, Washington said:

"I have no hesitation in declaring that I concur in all the sentiments you express as to the policy of giving freedom to our slaves under such modifications as may insure their happiness and promote the well being of our country. The difficulty comes in arranging such a scheming for the accomplishment of these great objects as is susceptible of execution. This unfortunate class of society constitutes the great mass of labor employed in the agriculture of the southern states. To withdraw it prematurely before it is ready to be supported by an equally efficient white population would be attended by the most disastrous consequences."

Justice Washington then said that the problem was that white foreign immigrants did not want to come to the South and work on plantations when they could farm their own land on the western frontier. Solving this problem was a task for "wiser heads than mine." Nevertheless, Washington said that slavery's demise "may be gradually brought about by voluntary emancipation and the advance of natural sentiment and feeling upon the subject as rapidly as the present circumstances in the Southern states will bear." 

He then turned to the essay's emancipation proposal. "With respect to the great outlines of your scheme: 1st, forced emancipation by the national government; and 2nd, compensation to the slaveowners from the National Treasury--they are exposed to difficulties which I have not been able to surmount. It is possible, however, that there is no great weight in them: they have no doubt occurred to you." Here you get a glimpse of how Washington might have operated with the Supreme Court's conference to make his points in a genial fashion.

Washington then explained his concerns: "[H]as the national government the power under the Constitution to adopt the proposed measure? It is certainly not to be found amongst the defined powers and I do not perceive that it can fairly be implied from any part of that instrument." (It's not clear whether Washington was referring here to the general power of eminent domain or just as applied to enslaved people.) His second point was practical: he doubted that Congress would approve such a large transfer payment from North to South. In other words, the proposal was just too expensive to pass.

I will be at Mount Vernon next week for a long delayed research trip. Perhaps I will make one more big discovery.

Posted by Gerard Magliocca on May 10, 2021 at 08:23 PM | Permalink


I look forward to this book.

"Seriatim: The Supreme Court Before John Marshall" had a chapter on him.

Posted by: Joe | May 12, 2021 1:39:17 PM

Post a comment