Monday, August 8, 2022

State of Society

The other day in comments I was denouncing George Mason and the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776 for the casuistry with which they declared that all men are equally free and endowed with rights except for those who happened to be enslaved: 

George Mason's Declaration of Rights of the State of Virginia, drafted May 1776, where the original smushing took place a few weeks before Jefferson adopted it, began by declaring "That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." 
That "enter into a state of society" clause was designed as an exemption for Virginians of African descent, who were deemed not "in a state of society". That was a diabolical piece of trickery (inherent for me but not for you, for reasons that are not intrinsic but historical), far worse than but very similar to the right to bear arms in the 1689 Bill, which was only for Protestants and not the Catholic allies of the ex-king.

Valued commenter Jeff Ryan took issue with that; surely I was overinterpreting what they meant by "state of society", and when I explained I'd gotten the interpretation from Wikipedia he wasn't too impressed with that either.

But the record of the deliberations makes it absolutely clear, as we learn from Self-evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War, by Richard D. Brown, 2017. Some delegates to the convention, led by Robert Nicholas, complained that the original language of Mason's proposed document, claiming natural freedom for all men without exception, was too radical for a society based on slavery: it could prompt the slaves to revolt, and delegate Edmund Pendleton came up with the hedge: 

What did it mean to say Virginia's enslaved population did not "enter into a state of society"? That they were mired in a "state of nature" as described not by John Locke but by the conservative Thomas Hobbes, with lives that were of necessity "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short"? Or that they were in a kind of limbo between the state of society from which their families had been ripped in West Africa and the one in North America to which they were never admitted, simply because they hadn't been admitted, as the reference to William Byrd suggests?

Byrd's famous apothegm being that

we all know that very bright talents may be lodged under a very dark skin. The principal difference between one people and another proceeds only from the different opportunities of improvement.

though we should note that he wasn't talking about his slaves, whom he hardly mentions in his diaries, but the Indigenous peoples, regretting that the English settlers hadn't made more of an effort to assimilate and Christianize them through intermarriage:

The Indians by no means want understanding, and are in their figure tall and well-proportioned. Even their copper-coloured complexion would admit of blanching, if not in the first, at the farthest in the second generation. I may safely venture to say, the Indian women would have made altogether as honest wives for the first planters, as the damsels they used to purchase from aboard the ships. It is strange, therefore, that any good Christian should have refused a wholesome, straight bed-fellow, when he might have had so fair a portion with her, as the merit of saving her soul.

Who doesn't want a wholesome, straight bedfellow?

And when he happens on a settlement of free Blacks in a North Carolina forest he doesn't think much of them and the state of their society, or of the North Carolina government that allows them to stay:

There we came upon a family of mulattoes that called themselves free, though by the shyness of the master of the house, who took care to keep least in sight, their freedom seemed a little doubtful. It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this obscure part of the world, nor will any of their righteous neighbours discover them. On the contrary, they find their account in settling such fugitives on some out-of-the-way corner of their land, to raise stocks for a mean and inconsiderable share, well knowing their condition makes it necessary for them to submit to any terms. Nor were these worthy borderers content to shelter runaway slaves, but debtors and criminals have often met with the like indulgence. But if the government of North Carolina has encouraged this unneighbourly policy in order to increase their people, it is no more than what ancient Rome did before them...

But whatever the logic (and Taney's use of it in the Dred Scott decision should say something about tha0, it should be clear in the 21st century that enslaved people were not in any sense outside the "state of society" but an essential part of it, an element without which the society was hardly able to run—deeply embedded in the social hierarchy, in complex ways, many of them highly skilled workers, as cooks and housekeepers, smiths and glassmakers, construction managers, horse trainers, etc., and even wholesome bedfellows.

If Pendleton could claim Black Virginians were not "entered into a state of society", based on some entirely theoretical construct from the writings of Hobbes and Locke, it is because the state of society systematically pretended this was the case, excluding them from a formal role. They would have entered into a state of society if they'd been invited. The white planter establishment, obviously, said no, and then blamed the victims as if they'd somehow failed at something.



The 1855 Discourse on the Virginia Convention of the pro-slavery Hugh Blair Grigsby credits Robert Nicholas with the preservation of the "peculiar institution" against the malign intentions of Mason, Jefferson, Pendleton, and others, but doesn't offer specifics from the debate:  

The great party of which Nicholas was a member,however prompt in resisting 
aggression from without, were cautious in remodelling the domestic policy
of the State when a civil war was raging in the land. The conservative
influence of those men was of incalculable value to their country.
Let those who are inclined to blame their caution in adopting radical 
changes in a time of extraordinary peril, and who approve of what are now 
called the peculiar institutions of the South,keep in mind that but for these 
very men those institutions might not have survived the last century.* 
* That George Mason, Wythe, Jefferson, Pendleton and others would have 
voted for emancipation is beyond a doubt. Mr. Jefferson not only proposed 
the measure in the House of Burgesses, but prepared a plan, which was agreed 
upon by the revisors, to be offered as an amendment to one of the revised bills 
When it came up in the House. George Mason in giving his reasons for voting 
against the Federal Constitution in the Convention which framed it, 
enumerates the clause which allowed the introduction of slaves from abroad for 
a limited period, contending that slavery was a source of weakness to a nation. 


Edmund Pendleton may have been in principle in favor of abolition, but you couldn't tell from his discussion in a letter to Madison of his nephew's efforts to recover an escaped slave during the siege of Yorktown at the end of the Revolutionary War:

I wrote you my Nephew had sent his oversr to Baltimore after his runaway slave.5 he concealed himself for two or three days, but made a friend amongst the Attendants of the French Army who at length discover’d the slave & the Oversr took him in an Officer’s tent who had emploied him as a Servant. They attempted to rescue the fellow & threaten’d the Overseer with sending him to the guard house, but as I had written to my friend Mr Lux6 requesting his Assistance, he interposed and procured the release of the Oversr & delivery of the slave, not however ’til he agreed to pay 20 dollars for his maint[en]ance under pretence of an Order of our Governor & Council, allowing them to demand of the owners of all7 runaway slaves, a reasonable sum for their provisions.8 I never heard of such an Order, but if there was such, I am persuaded it related only to those taken from the British at the seige of York,9 and not to such as run away and join them on their March, & are encouraged to do so by their secreting & Protecting them from their Masters. The oversr. had lost his horse & went in pursuit of him, leavg the slave tied & handcuff’d at Mr Lux’s, from whence he escaped & must have had some Assistance. after two days fruitless search, he was obliged to return without him, having added to the loss of him that of a valuable horse, the 20 Dollars & other considerable expences. The[re] are a number of other people here have lost their slaves in the same manner, and are in a very ill humor on the Occasion; And as I am persuaded the principal officers in that Army are no ways privy or consenting to such Plundering, I have no doubt but that upon Application, they would all be delivered up, when they might be confined, & on public Notice the Owners get them again—otherwise I expect that application will be made to Our Assembly, & Probably from them to Congress,10 which might lay the foundation of Bickerings with our good friends, that would give me more concern than even the loss of my nephew’s slave, tho’ his circumstances do not make that a very light one, with the accumulated expences which have been consequent upon it. The Overseer cannot tel, nor does Mr Lux mention the name of the officer who extorted the 20 Dollars, & had emploied the slave as a servant. they only say he was a Lieutn. I wish I knew his name that you might point him out to the General. In the mean time it is possible the slave may have fallen into your hands, tho’ he has practiced every Stratagem to conceal himself by denying his Master’s name, & changing his own & his dialect; but the marks on his shoulders cannot be removed.

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