I'm delighted to say that University, Court, and Slave, which has been in the works for years and years, is now available. If you're willing to read it on kindle, it's actually reasonably priced. Amazon has it for under $15. (If you want the hard copy, I understand that OUP is shipping it now, although the official publication date is mid-August.)
I want to provide an overview now and I'll be talking about various pieces in future posts. The book is about proslavery thought in the South from Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 to the opening of Civil War. It opens with the Nat Turner rebellion -- but my primary focus in the first chapter is on a William and Mary professor, Thomas Dew, who wrote an important and widely read proslavery pamphlet in the wake of the rebellion. My primary focus in the first part of the book is proslavery thought in southern universities. I follow the evolution of ideas from Dew's pamphlet in 1831 down to secession, at schools around the south from UVA, Washington College, VMI, Hampden-Sydney, and Randolph Macon in Virginia, down to UGA, Alabama, and Ole Miss -- with cameo appearances from a number of other southern schools. I also discuss the antislavery thought that appears in schools, especially at UVA and Washington College. I have a couple of faculty who're particularly important -- in addition to Thomas Dew, my major subjects include Henry Ruffner of Washington College (an anti-slavery advocate), Albert Taylor Bledsoe, a professor at UVA, and James Holcombe, a law professor at UVa. The proslavery faculty increasingly focus on the role of hierarchy and slavery in history, and the economic importance of slavery.
The second part shifts to the ideas of proslavery thought in more public settings -- like Congress. I focus in particular on the debates around the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. (The anti-slavery response to the Act has been well-covered, but I'm more interested in how proslavery ideas, history, political theory, and economics, were mobilized to support the Act.) The middle part also focuses on how the anti-slavery writers understood and responded to the historical and empirical arguments about slavery.
The final part turns to proslavery ideas and actions in the judiciary and among lawyers. While I suspect that the first part will get the most attention, this is my favorite part of the book because it traces how ideas were put to use by actors at the center of southern power. Part three looks at several key judges -- Thomas Ruffin of North Carolina and Joseph Lumpkin of Georgia -- as well as some less-well-known judges and lawyers, to see how they used proslavery arguments as part of their decisions on issues from criminal law to torts, to emancipation and trusts. I also discuss judges like John Archibald Campbell, who wrote several articles on the legal history of slavery, John Catron, who issued an anti-slavery decision when he was a judge in Tennessee (shocking, I know), and Ebenezer Starnes who wrote an epistolary novel about a slave-owner who brought a slave to England. The slave couldn't wait to get back to slavery in Georgia. It was a terrible piece of literature, but is illuminating of Starnes' world-view. (I discuss a number of the sources here.)
My favorite chapter centers around Thomas Cobb, a lawyer from Athens, Georgia, who wrote the most comprehensive proslavery treatise of the pre-Civil War era. He synthesized decades of work on history, "science," economics, and law to create a zealously proslavery argument. Cobb was not some closeted academic; he was an activist scholar. Following Lincoln's election, he traveled to the Georgia capital to make a speech in favor of secession -- and then he took to the battlefield to defend the Confederacy. Cobb died at Fredericksburg in December 1862. The upshot of the final section is to illustrate how ideas of slavery, property, and political theory appeared in legal arguments -- from treatises to opinions to legislative debates -- and how those arguments help illuminate the minds of southerners as they moved towards secession.
I hope this will intervene in a series of debates. The first is growing literature on slavery and universities. There's been some fabulous work on this -- some of it goes back decades, such as Drew Faust's A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South -- but a lot of it is recent, such as Craig Wilder's Ebony and Ivy. Wilder's focus is on northern schools, where proslavery ideas--particularly "science"--and funding from slavery are even more surprising than in southern schools. And then there's Michael O'Brien's expansive Conjectures of Order, which is more intellectual history that sweeps across the old south, though it deals with university faculty. Building on that outstanding work, I have been able to delve the proslavery political theory, history, and legal ideas of southern faculty more deeply than have other scholars. I hope that this will help show the detail of those ideas and how they shift over time -- often, I think, in response to anti-slavery advocacy -- and to show how much the academy was linked to ideas in circulation elsewhere in the south. There were complex and important -- as well as extremely disturbing -- ideas on those campuses.
Second, I hope this will help expand our sense of the sophistication of pre-Civil War jurisprudence. Where so many people treat American jurisprudence as though it began in 1870, the judges and lawyers here reveal that there were extensive historical and empirical arguments, as well as political theory, decades before that. And it may very well be that the post-war historical and empirical jurisprudence owes its origins to those hotly contested debates over slavery. Third, I hope this will add detail to how ideas circulate between popular culture and legal thought. The proslavery ideas built up over time in terms of depth and sophistication in and out of the judiciary. Judges drew on common tropes and added to them. This reflects the close connections between judges and their culture.
Finally, I hope this causes us to realize how close arguments about property rights lie to the center of debates over secession.
You can read some of it on books.google now. And I hope if this interests you that you'll recommend it to your school's library. I look forward to talking about more specifics -- such as the content and reach of Thomas Dew's thoughts, proslavery ideas in graduation addresses, the increasing belief that slavery was consistent with natural law in the 1850s, the role of Frederick A.P. Barnard in slavery at the University of Alabama and Ole Miss, Thomas Cobb's proslavery legal treatise and role in secession, lesser-known jurists and their prolsavery writings, and finally property and constitutional thought in secession debates.