Slavery reform in Virginia, 1816-1865 Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Gurza-Lavalle, Gerardo
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • The attempts at reforming the most brutal features of slavery in the antebellum South have been usually interpreted as part of the effort of the slaveholding elite to legitimate its social order. In Virginia, however, the reformist impulse originated in a strong desire to eradicate slavery by means of voluntary manumission and the colonization of the freedmen in Africa. Such a plan seduced many enthusiasts of economic development, who thought that slavery was responsible for the backwardness of their state, and it also attracted clergymen and reformers who believed that slavery was a stumbling bloc on the road to a more Christian and moral society. Reformers changed from this initial stance owing to internal resistance to change, abolitionist criticism, and the enormous practical difficulties of colonization. Then, from the late 1830s on, reformers saw more possibilities of achieving the progress they wanted in the adoption of ameliorative measures that would improve slavery itself. This shift reflected an acommodation with the social order; through reform initiatives such as the evangelization of the slaves, the promotion of better treatment, and the appeals against the separation of slave families, reformers helped to bolster the legitimacy of the slave system. But reform never was a mere tool of the slaveholding class. The power of the slaveholders to shape their own society and culture was more fragile and contradictory than has been usually acknowledged. The different reform movements were never controlled by any class for its own advantage, and they also contained some potential to challenge the social order.
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  • In Copyright
  • Watson, Harry L.
  • Open access

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