Then there are the great Southern universities, which were founded by slaveholders and that sought to justify slavery: the University of Virginia (founded by Jefferson); Washington and Lee (named after two slaveholders, one of whom was a leader of the war to maintain slavery); William and Mary and Randolph-Macon Colleges, whose presidents authored leading pro-slavery tracts. The list goes on. Indeed, the list of Southern schools that weren’t bastions of pro-slavery thought is much shorter than those that were.
The recent discussion of slavery at schools like Yale leads one to ask, “Why does all that matter?” Many think it is simply irrelevant. Professor John McWhorter of the University of California—Berkeley, one of this country’s leading conservative black intellectuals, maintains that it is “inappropriate to render a moral judgment on the worth of a person’s life based on moral standards which didn’t exist at that time.”
Great schools like Yale should not escape condemnation so quickly. Contrary to McWhorter’s claim, slavery was condemned by many intellectual leaders in early America. In the 1680s, shortly after the settlement of Pennsylvania, Quakers there began strenuous efforts to discourage slavery. In the wake of the Revolution, many people—inspired by Enlightenment ideas that taught the fundamental equality of humans—urged the abolition of slavery. Many Americans knew slavery was wrong, but the leading institutions—churches, school and courts—continued to embrace slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the best-selling novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, reached the hearts of Americans. Her many readers—it was the best-selling novel in history at the time—wanted to take action against slavery. But they could not break free from the constraints of the churches, political parties and laws that supported slavery. Stowe pessimistically concluded in her later years that “from the great institutions in society, no help whatever is to be expected.”
Had there been more support from the great bastions of intellectual power—like Yale—there might have been change. Some at Yale, like those who defended the Africans on the Amistad, did lend their support to the abolitionist cause. But as an institution, Yale took money made from slavery, celebrated slaveholders and even pro-slavery politicians, and educated others to follow in those steps. While Ralph Waldo Emerson, Class of 1821, was telling students to reject outmoded ideas—like slavery—orators at Yale ridiculed him. In the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required Northerners to return fugitive slaves to their Southern owners, college speakers throughout the country argued fiercely in favor of the act. They criticized those who broke the law to protect humans from being sent back to slavery.
There are some lessons in this for us. These episodes remind us that universities are often the product and beneficiary of the great interests (in this case what used to be called the “slave power”). As a result, they are often more likely to justify than to condemn those interests. Professor McWhorter is just another in a long line of teachers, stretching back to the leading pro-slavery authors of the 1800s, who believe with Alexander Pope that “whatever is, is right.” He may honestly, if mistakenly, believe that slavery was morally (as well as legally) acceptable in the 1830s; he may even believe that it is wrong to condemn a university for accepting pro-slavery dogma rather than challenging it. But maybe we can realize with Emerson that it is the duty of the scholar to rethink old institutions and old ideas—and that it is the duty of the university to lead the way.
Alfred L. Brophy is a professor of law at the University of Alabama. His book Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921—Race, Reparations, Reconciliation will be published by Oxford University Press in November.