Alexander Campbell and Thomas Jefferson
A Comparative Study of Two Old Virginians


    Jefferson wrote into his Autobiography that "nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free," speaking of the Negroes living on his own and other plantations in the South. "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other," he said. As if to anticipate the dark days of the Civil War, which came just twenty years after his death, he wrote: "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever . . . But if something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children." (Russell, p. 57)

    He had his own plan for the liberation of the slaves. All the children born of slave parents should be declared free, but they should stay with their parents until old enough to shift for themselves. Then they would be educated at public expense in farming, arts, or sciences. At age 21 for the males and 18 for the females they would be placed in colonies apart from the whites where they could build their own culture. When he saw that the public would not buy his idea, he wrote as if by prophecy: "the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow."

    He would colonize the Negroes off to themselves because he believed they were inferior to the white race: "I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind." Being an inferior race, it would be futile and harmful to attempt to make them "equal" in social intercourse. Yet slavery must go, for "it is as degrading for the master as for the slave." He claimed that slavery "is destructive of the morals of the people and of industry." Slavery became a political issue in Jefferson's time. He jeopardized his political future, especially with southern leaders, by his view that slavery was a "national sore" that had to be remedied as soon as possible. As much as he desired to promote the industrial development of the United States, he hesitated to do so in that he believed such progress would perpetuate slavery.

    He believed slavery could be abolished if Congress had sufficient power of the states to declare all men free. Yet he was a champion of state rights and so he opposed the kind of centralized power that would be required to end slavery by legal action. While he argued that slavery was poor economics, it was a matter of moral and religious principles that he opposed the system. It simply is not right for one man to own another man. He himself owned 75 (or 90 by one account) slaves who worked his plantation at Monticello. He freed none except the five who were liberated in his last will and testament.

    Alexander Campbell owned his first slaves only a few years before Jefferson's death in 1826, and he lived through the stormy period of the slavery question up to and during the Civil War, dying in 1866. Attending his funeral was an old Negro that Campbell had owned as a slave, whom he set free long years before and placed on a pension. Slavery was a "hotter" issue in Campbell's prime than in Jefferson's day, for the abolitionists and anti-abolitionists were at war with each other. The fight had entered the churches, tearing them asunder.

    Campbell owned only two or three slaves, probably by way of inheritance from his father-in-law, all of whom he set free. While he was their master they were taught to read and they received religious instruction, a testimony to his disapproval of the abuses that so often characterized the system. He believed the New Testament recognizes, or at least does not condemn, the relationship of master and slave. Yet he favored emancipation. And there were times when he used stern language in condemning the system: "Slavery is the largest and blackest blot upon our national escutcheon, that many-headed monster, that Pandora's box, that bitter root, that blighting and blasting curse under which so far and so large a portion of our beloved country groans."

    Conscious of Thomas Jefferson's plan to colonize the slaves, Campbell set forth a proposal whereby it could be effected: that the ten million dollars that had annually been spent on the national debt, which was now paid off (which sounds strange to 1963 ears!!), should from then on be used to colonize the colored race. Let these millions be spent each year in building a separate culture for the freed slaves, he insisted, "until the soil of our free and happy country shall not be trod by the foot of a slave, nor enriched by a drop of his sweat or blood; that all the world may not believe that we are a nation of hypocrites, asserting all men to have certain natural and inherent rights, which in our practice we deny; and shedding crocodile tears over the fall of Warsaw, and illuminating for the revolution of the Parisians, while we have millions of miserable human beings at home held in involuntary bondage, in ignorance, degradation and vice, by a republican system of free slaveholding." (Richardson, Memoirs, 2, p. 368)

    Like Jefferson who avowed that slavery is as bad for the master as for the slave, Campbell wrote from the south to his friend Dr. Richardson in which he said "None are more enslaved to men than slave-owners," and also, like Jefferson, he had a word to say in the same letter about the clergy as partly responsible for the blindness: "In religion two or three little popes govern all the associations and conferences--they think--and the people pay them for it." (Richardson, Memoirs, 2, p. 452)

    Just as President Jefferson had condemned slavery as economically unwise as well as morally wrong, Campbell told an audience of South Carolinians that "slavery has proved no greater blessing to the far South than it has done to Virginia. It has exhausted whatever natural fertility had been originally in the soil; and South Carolina seems to have once had a reasonable proportion of fruitful territory. It has superinduced the worst system of agriculture which one could easily imagine; and it has imposed on the whole community views, feelings and habits exceedingly inimical to the resuscitation of the soil and the agricultural improvement and advancement of the State." He went on to point out that tobacco, rice and cotton are profitable crops for slave labor, but that for all other crops slave labor is very unprofitable." (Richardson, p. 450)

    By 1845 the slavery dispute among religious leaders had become what Campbell described as a "period of excitement and extremes upon a very exciting subject." At the beginning of this year he promised the readers of Millennial Harbinger in his Preface that he would define his position in detail, beginning with an essay on the subject by his honored father, Thomas Campbell. He followed with 12 essays of his own, stating his position as clearly as anyone could expect. Yet it seems that he was always misunderstood by some. In 1847 he was imprisoned in Scotland over a circumstance growing out of the charge that he was pro-slavery, yea even a man-stealer--he was so caricatured on posters as such! In America as early as 1840 he had fixed upon him in The Philanthropist, an abolitionist journal, "the brand of proslavery." The editor wrote: "Mr. Campbell may yet live to curse the day when he took his pen to prove slavery sinless."

    In the essay alluded to it was Campbell's intention to show that the slavery question would largely be solved if this divine precept were obeyed: "Masters, render unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven." He made it clear that he opposed slavery: "I always regarded it as a great evil, as a great misfortune to the American family, and have always cherished the pleasing anticipation that a day was rapidly advancing on which, with the consent of all parties, by an inclined plane, or a gradual approximation, the difficulty would be met and overcome, and this otherwise safe and happy Republic saved from shipwreck and ruin on this ominous and tremendous rock." (Mill. Harb. 11, p. 99)

    And yet he rejected the proposition that "the holding a person as a slave (or in a state of involuntary servitude) is always a sin." If this were true, he pointed out, then Paul would not have urged masters to be good to their slaves, but would have said, "Masters, immediately emancipate your slaves, and pay them wages, or let them go and seek other employment." Rather Paul accepts slavery as a social institution of his time, but sought to control it through Christian love. As Campbell put it: "There are many things that the laws will permit slaveholders to do that Christian masters cannot do. The laws will authorize a master to sell a wife from the bosom of her husband, and an infant from the breast of its mother; and does anyone believe that a follower of Jesus Christ could do such a deed!"

    In the essay by Thomas Campbell, referred to above, the old patriarch of the Campbell clan (he was in his 80's when he penned it!) answers the argument that "slavery is sinful in the extreme" with 17 quotations from the Bible indicating that God regulates rather than condemns slavery. He sees it as part of God's judgment against sin. Yet it is an evil that must end, and he predicts its downfall, urging that "no Christian can either approve or practice it."

    Both of the Campbells were moderates between two extreme positions. Alexander painstakingly distinguished between pro-slavery, abolitionism, and anti-slavery. "The doctrine of the pro-slavery party is that the relation of Master and Slave is one of divine authority, consonant to the genius of human nature--to all the principles of morality and piety; and is, therefore, morally right, and may, with all propriety exist among Christians." He rejects this position.

    Abolitionism is the doctrine that the relation of master and slave "as in its very nature evil, and only evil, and that continually; that living in that relation was just as criminal as living in adultery or any other immoral and wicked connection." Campbell further observes that the abolitionist insists upon breaking up the relationship by an immediate emancipation of all slaves: "Peaceably if they could, forcibly if they must." He rejects this position also: "I have always been anti-slavery, but never an abolitionist." He shows that many slave-owners are anti-slavery in that they contemplate the end of the system.

    Along with all this Campbell urges the abolitionists of the North to mind their own affairs and leave the South free to work its way out of slavery, which he believed it would do. Taking Paul's statement in I Cor. 7:20-21 (but we will use the RSV rendition): "Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity," he shows that while the apostle accepts slavery without censure he nonetheless hopes for the Christian slave's freedom. Campbell says he too hopes for the freedom of slaves, then adds: "But till that day arrives, which, in my opinion, would arrive much more speedily if the South were permitted to follow its own policies without any foreign interference--let all Christian men mind their own business." He further charges that abolitionists are unchristian and indiscreet when they encourage discontent and rebellion on the part of slaves.

    The sorest spot with Campbell was that some churches were disfellowshiping slave-owners. He insisted that "no Christian community can religiously make the simple relation of master and slave a subject of discipline or a term of Communion." While he grants that both master and slave in a congregation might be censured for neglecting their God-ordained duties to each other, he goes on to say: "He that censures a man merely because he is a master of a slave, censures the law and the gospel, Moses and Christ, for they all sanction the relation, and denominated some masters as 'faithful and beloved'."

    It was gratifying to Campbell that the gospel had reached large segments of Southern slaves. He observes that in one state that numbered 60,000 Baptists three-fourths of them were slaves! He tells of seeing 2,000 slaves in railroad cars in Charleston who were "well dressed and of the finest appearance, returning from a protracted meeting." He also quotes the governor of South Carolina as saying that the Negroes of his state are much better off than their cannibalistic ancestors in Africa, one reason being that they are given religious education.

    Campbell liked to say: "Christian masters are the Lord's slaves, says Paul, while Christian slaves are the Lord's freedmen." This is a good summary of his position. He believed that Christianity should accept its social situation, then work toward the betterment of that society by way of Christian principles. And so he urged: "The master, then, being a slave to the Lord, must not be inhibited by law from discharging his duties to his servant. He must carry out the golden rule, and teach him to read the Bible, and extend to him all the means of moral and spiritual improvement." (Mill. Harb. 16, p. 261)