In April and May 1851, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898), a Presbyterian pastor in Tinkling Spring, Virginia, published eleven letters in the Richmond Enquirer on “The Moral Character of Slavery.” The letters have been referenced in handful of articles and books, but the letters themselves have never been accessible, other than in newspaper archives. Here, for the first time, is a transcription of nine of these letters, with footnotes added indicating the sources that Dabney interacts with. (Two of the letters, from May 6, 1851, remain elusive):
PDF files of the original issues of the Richmond Enquirer are available on the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” site here: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024735/issues/1851/
- Letter 1 — April 29, 1851 (page 4)
- Letter 2 — April 29, 1851 (page 1)
- Letter 3 – May 2, 1851 (page 4)
- Letter 4 – May 2, 1851 (page 2)
- [Letters 5 & 6 missing—May 6, 1851 unavailable]
- Letter 7 – May 9, 1851 (page 1)
- Letter 8 – May 16, 1851 (page 4)
- Letter 9 – May 16, 1851 (page 1)
- Letter 10 – May 23, 1851 (page 1)
- Letter 11 – May 30, 1851 (page 2)
Dabney started pastoring at Tinkling Spring, Virginia, in 1847 at the age of 27. He started writing for newspapers and periodicals, publishing sermons, letters, and articles in 1848. His biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, notes that he “found time for special study along chosen lines” and had been purchasing a number of books for that study (Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney, 127). Among the books cited in the letters are Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1812), Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution: In a Correspondence Between the Rev. Richard Fuller of Beaufort, S. C., and the Rev. Francis Wayland, of Providence, R. I. (1847), and Moses Stuart, Conscience and the Constitution: With Remarks on the Recent Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster in the Senate of the United States on the Subject of Slavery (1850).
Quite a bit was happening in 1850–51. In September 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act had been passed, which law which had the support of Northern moderates, but which alarmed abolitionists and resulted in intensified activism amongst those engaged in the fight for liberation. In June 1851, a month after Dabney’s letters were published, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin would begin to appear in serialized form in newspapers.
In January 1851, Dabney wrote a letter to his brother Charles on slavery, feeling that “the ethical character of the relation of slavery ought to be vindicated before the great public” (LLD, 128). Charles shared the letter(s?) with the editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who “expressed his great readiness to have the suggested articles.” In all, eleven articles were published in April and May 1851, signed by the pen name “Chorepiscopus,” a transliteration of the Greek for “Country Bishop.” Johnson notes that this was the name that “most of his contributions in the Watchman and Observer, also, had appeared” (LLD, 128), and Morton Smith includes a nearly complete list of articles and letters written by Dabney, signed “Chorepiscopus,” and notes that these are “identified by a manuscript list of his publications in the Union Seminary Library” (Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology, 340).
I can’t find any evidence of anyone responding directly to Dabney’s articles at the time. The editors of the Enquirer puffed them like this: “We commend these admirable letters to the people of the South as well as the North. The arguments, if circulated and studied, must do much to pierce the film of prejudice and error, and strengthen the bulwarks of Southern Rights” (preface to Letter 1). As the last letter was published, the editors said this: “We today conclude the philosophical and truly able Nos. of our accomplished correspondent. We trust that our readers appreciate, as highly as we do, the force and truth of his lucid arguments and masterly array of facts, which will do more to throw a shield of protection around the institutions of the South than all the schemes of the South Carolina disunionsts” (Letter 11). Johnson credits Dabney’s letters published in these papers as helping to build Dabney’s reputation in Virginia Presbyterian circles: “These articles, and others which he published in this period, gave him a well-deserved reputation for vigor and learning, as well as for sound conservatism. They no doubt served to show the church, and especially the Synods of Virginia and North Carolina, his fitness for service as a professor in the Seminary at Hampden-Sidney” (LLD, 130). Indeed, just two years later Dabney was offered the chair of Ecclesiastical History and Polity at Union Theological Seminary, thus beginning Dabney’s thirty year tenure (1853–1883), serving also as professor of Theology for many of those years.
Thirteen years later, in 1863, these letters would serve as the basis for Dabney’s full-throated A Defence of Virginia: (And Through Her, of the South). Johnson again describes the process: “Securing a copy of his articles on slavery, published in the Enquirer, he revised, recast, and enlarged them” (LLD, 273). Indeed, what amounts to around 50–60 pages of material in 1851 was expanded to over 350 pages. Nevertheless, almost everything found in the letters in 1851 remains as the foundation in 1863 (though the book would not actually be published until 1867).
These letters are significant in studies of Dabney, especially as a slight correction to the portrayal of the development of his thought. Some have pointed to the Civil War as a turning point in Dabney’s life, and Johnson says that the fall of the Confederacy was “epochal in Dr. Dabney’s life” (LLD, 292). One does indeed note a sharp bitterness in Dabney after the Civil War that never goes away, but without accounting for these letters, a full decade before the war, one can make too much of this. For example, Sean Michael Lucas points out a contradiction in Dabney’s views between 1840 and 1867, noting that Dabney had “willingly recognized” the abuses of slavery at the earlier date (see his letter to Mr. G. Woodson Payne, in LLD, 67), but that “by the time he wrote Defense of Virginia, he saw these abuses as unimportant or generally nonexistent, contradicting his earlier opinions” (Lucas, Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, 125–26). There is certainly a marked contrast between 1840 and 1867. Yet, Lucas groups Dabney’s 1851 views with his earlier views, citing a small section of a letter quoted in the Johnson biography (LLD, 128–29) but not interacting at all with the letters themselves. The full context of the letters published in the Enquirer shows that Dabney’s views in 1851 are fully in line with his views in 1867, and are themselves in sharp contrast with what he says in 1840. In other words, the shift came much earlier than the Civil War.
J. Albert Harrill makes a similar assessment when referencing one of Dabney’s pro-slavery arguments in Defence of Virginia, describing it as tinged with “post-Civil War racism and resentment of the abolition of slavery” (“The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate,” 170). Dabney’s argument is this: “This [abolitionist] hypothesis represents that Saviour who claimed omniscience, as adopting a policy which was as futile as dishonest. He forbore the utterance of any express testimony against the sin of slaveholding, say they [the abolitionists], leaving the church to find it out by deduction from general principles of equity” (Defence of Virginia, 203, in Harrill, “The Use of the New Testament,” 170). Yet, this very argument was used by Dabney in his 1851 letters (Letter 7), a full decade before the Civil War and emancipation. The venomous racism was fully present pre-Civil War, and the resentment over abolitionism grew from a full-hearted opposition to it beforehand.
Dabney’s racism and white-supremacy are on full display in these letters, and in fact, they may be the earliest record of his views that we have. He later puts his white-supremacy on full display in the aftermath of the Civil War as he bitterly fought against the efforts of Reconstruction (see “What’s So Bad About R.L. Dabney?“), but these letters move the record of his strong racial views up into his earliest chapter of ministry, before even his appointment to professor of theology at Union. Reading through the letters, one can see the breadth of Dabney’s whole-hearted support for slavery, and its roots in venomous white-supremacy. This was no “blind spot” for him—it was foundational to his entire ideology, intellectual, theological, spiritual, philosophical, and political.
(Note: for brief commentary on each of the letters, see Part 2: “Worse than Questionable”: Commentary on Dabney’s 1851 Letters on Slavery.
Carrigan, William D. “In Defense of the Social Order: Racial Thought among Southern White Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century.” American Nineteenth Century History 1.2 (2000): 31–52.
Giles, Kevin. “The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics.” The Evangelical Quarterly 66 (1994): 3–17 (available here).
Harrill, J Albert. “The Use of the New Testament in the American Slave Controversy: A Case History in the Hermeneutical Tension between Biblical Criticism and Christian Moral Debate.” Religion and American Culture 10.2 (2000): 149–86 (available on JSTOR).
Lucas, Sean Michael. Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005).
Maddex, Jack P. “Proslavery Millennialism: Social Eschatology in Antebellum Southern Calvinism.” American Quarterly 31.1 (1979): 46–62 (available on JSTOR).