On October 16 and 17 the University of Virginia's President's Commission on Slavery and The University is hosting a conference on "Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery." This discussion is going to be fabulous. I'll be talking a little more about this as we get closer, but I'm going to be focusing on the ideas about political theory and slavery that were developed and disseminated on that campus, largely in the 1850s. There is an important story of the shift away from Jefferson's ideas about universal equality to the 1850s when students and faculty routinely criticized Jefferson's Declaration. They spoke about the hierarchy inherent in nature; law professor James Holcombe is one of my key subjects. He urged alumni to give money to the University of Virginia in 1853 so that its faculty could produce proslavery literature and teach students to defend slavery. Three years later he spoke to the Virginia Historical Society about Virginia's role in the Revolution (and he took that as an opportunity to criticize Massachusetts residents for sowing sectional conflict in the 1850s). Holcombe delivered a very frank address in 1858 that argued slavery is consistent with natural law. This built in a lot of ways on work that Albert Taylor Bledsoe (also a UVa professor) published in the early 1850s that flipped the idea that humans first existed in a state of nature. Bledsoe argued that humans always lived in a state of society and that law needed to restrain individuals from interfering with the freedom and lives of others. (Abolitionists argued this, too -- which is a story I want to develop another time.) Bledsoe built an argument that law promoted liberty best by restraining individuals and by putting them in their proper place in nature's hierarchy. His book Liberty and Slavery was based on the idea that the state should restrain the liberty of those not fit for freedom. Enslaved people were the obvious and immediate target here. Henry St. George Tucker made a similar argument in his Lectures on Natural Law at UVa in the 1840s as well.
A lot the story here is quite straight-forward; for instance I'll talk some about the constitutional theory of alumni addresses in the 1850s, which put slavery and rights in enslaved people at the center of their constitutional interpretation. One article in the Virginia University Magazine (the student literary journal) celebrated the discussion of slavery (unusual in southern circles where usually no one wanted to talk publicly) because it gave southerners the chance to defend the institution and that led to the promulgation of the idea that slavery was central to southern society. Another used the publication of William Fitzhugh's Cannibals All to compare the lives of the enslaved to free workers and suggest that slavery was superior to freedom. Such ideas help us understand the move towards secession -- in which these ideas (and in some cases these very people) were central.
Update: here's my talk at UVA's Slavery and University Conference. Here are some comments on slavery and universities at the Southern Historical Society on slavery and universities back in 2011.