In the wake of the Nat Turner slave insurrection in 1831 in Virginia, the Virginia legislature had raucous debates over the future of the Peculiar Institution in the Old Dominion State. When Thomas Jefferson Randolph, favorite grandson of Thomas Jefferson and the Executor of his estate, rose to speak in favor of gradual emancipation in the House of Delegates, the lower house of the General Assembly, he must have known that he was walking into a political whirlwind. He proposed that all slaves born in 1840 be ultimately freed, with female slaves being freed on their eighteenth birthday and male slaves on their twenty-first birthday. The state would then pay the cost of shipping the freed slaves to Africa to colonies established for the purpose. He predicted that the enactment of his proposal would cause many slave holders to sell their slaves to states in the deep South, and that in a relatively brief period of time there would be few slaves left in Virginia.
Western Virginia, foreshadowing the divisions of the Civil War, where the slave population was small, rallied to the proposal. Eastern Virginia, where the vast bulk of the slave population was located, bitterly opposed the proposal. Two weeks of raucous debate followed in the House of Delegates, with the proposal ultimately defeated 73-58. Virginia house seats were alloted to artificially increase the power of the slave holding regions. But for such an artificial increase in the number of seats from the slave holding areas, the proposal would have failed by a single vote.
This debate demonstrated that on the issue of slavery, Virginia was a house divided. It also proposes an interesting what if. If the proposal had been enacted, slaves born in 1840 would have been freed by 1861, with the male slaves entering on their freedom during 1861. Slavery would have been a moribund institution by the onset of the War. Would a non-slaveholding Virginia have still felt sufficient ties of kinship with the slaveholding lower South to propel her into secession? Would Virginia’s law have been seen as a model and adopted by other upper South and border slave holding states? If this had been the case, would the secessionists of the lower South have been confident enough to have seceded if there had been substantial doubt of a largely non-slave holding upper South and border states following? One of the more interesting what if paths of speculation in American history.