The January 1832 Debate on Slavery in Virginia: Clashing Scenes and Terministic Screens

Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Tech


Following the Nat Turner rebellion, the Virginia State Legislature held a debate in early 1832 over the abolition of slavery in the state. Two sides, pro-abolitionists and traditionalists, sparred over a two-week period. Using dramatistic analysis, I undertake a case study of the debate, looking specifically for the terministic screens used by each side to ascertain their worldviews that ultimately led to a narrow defeat of the pro-abolitionists.

FOR TWO WEEKS, RICHMOND WAS AWASH WITH CITIZENS OF ALL CLASSES AND SLAVE-HOLDING STATUS.1 They came to witness a spectacle new to the American South; in January 1832, members of the State Legislature formally debated the abolition of slavery in Virginia. Newspapers described the momentous event, claiming, "we have never heard any debate so eloquent, so sustained, and in which so great a number of speakers had appeared and commanded the attention of so numerous and intelligent an audience. . . . Day after day, multitudes thronged to the capitol, and have been compensated by eloquence which would have illustrated Rome or Athens" (Dew 8). Governor John Floyd wrote in his diary that, "Nothing now is talked of or creates any interest but the debate on the abolition of slavery" (Ambler 172). The openness and candor of the delegates, coupled with the intense public and press scrutiny, produced an attention the likes of which Virginia never again lavished on the charged subject.

The deliberations represent only a footnote in history, overshadowed by the growing abolitionist movements in the North and the Nullification Crisis in the South. It is, however, a defining moment in the history of Southern oratory. Political oratory on the slavery issue, particularly the urgent calls for gradual emancipation, presaged many of the arguments and debates that constituted the "Rhetoric of Desperation" characterizing the South up until the War Between the States (Eubanks 19-72). The catalyst for this event, however, remains more than a historical note.

It occurred in late 1831, when Virginia witnessed the bloodiest slave insurrection in American history. Nat Turner, a slave and self-proclaimed prophet, met with six other slaves on August 22 ("The Confessions of Nat Turner"). That night he and his followers tore through Jerusalem, Va., leaving fifty-seven whites—mostly women and children—shot, axed, and bludgeoned to death (Pleasants 64). Rumor of the uprising spread quickly, fueled by grisly reports such as that published in Richmond's Constitutional Whig on August 22, 1831: "It was hardly in the power of rumor itself, to exaggerate the atrocities which have been perpetrated by the insurgents: whole families, father, mother, daughters, sons, sucking babes and school children, butchered, thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by hogs and dogs, or to putrify on the spot. At Mr. Levi Waller's, his wife and ten children, were murdered and piled in one bleeding heap on the floor . . ." (Pleasants 64).

Fear of similar revolts from slaves viscerally gripped the outlying slave states Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky through to the Deep South. Virginians dreaded a second rebellion, and no attempt by politicians and newspapers could soothe the public's apprehension at the thought of approximately 470,000 slaves (almost 40% of the state's total population) in open revolt ("U.S Census Office" tables 10-13).2 Joseph Robert wrote that until Nat Turner's capture on October 31, the whites living in heavily black populated sections of Virginia "hung dangerously near the panic stage," ready to spring to action at the slightest provocation (Robert 7). In the following months, other slave states took action to curb growing slave populations, attempting to avert rebellions. Georgia and Louisiana passed resolutions forbidding the importation of slaves from other states, and other regions considered similar measures (Robert 13). Virginia was a slave exporting state, and with a rapidly shrinking export market, Virginians realized that the black population would continue to grow faster than the white.

On December 5, 1831, Governor Floyd declared his commitment to ending slavery in Virginia ("The Diary of John Floyd" qtd. in Whitfield 63). The House of Delegates responded promptly, creating a committee of thirteen members to discuss the "insurrectionary movements of the slaves, and the removal of the free persons of color" (qtd. in Robert 15-16). After laborious proceedings, committee chairman William Brodnax requested that eight additional men join his ranks; thus, the final composition of the committee was sixteen easterners and five westerners (eastern Virginia had more representatives because it was more populous and heavily dependent upon slave labor). As discussion continued, the delegates coalesced into two main factions, labeled here as traditionalists—those who believed that slavery should remain in place—and the activists—who urged change, generally in the form of gradual emancipation. On January 10, 1832, traditionalist William Goode inquired after the progress of the committee. Brodnax replied that "any apparent tardiness…consisted of two main problems: the removal of the free Negroes and gradual emancipation" (Robert 18). On January 11, Goode, feeling the interests of his slave-holding constituents threatened, designed a resolution that he believed could keep the issue from reaching the floor (Robert 19). Thomas Jefferson Randolph moved immediately to amend the resolution, which, contrary to Goode's intention, opened the floor to debate. For the next two weeks, the delegates engaged in a historic sparring match over the merits and morality of slavery, its open discussion, and abolition.

Rhetorical Insights

Historians have been long aware of the 1832 slavery debate, and traditionally held that the results of the debate confirmed Virginia's acceptance and defense of the "Deep South's pro-slavery philosophy. . . . Supposedly, only the westernmost portions of the state seriously proposed emancipation in some form. The eastern areas with ease defeated the proposals and henceforth closed all further discussion of the issue" (Campbell 322). This traditional view has not gone unchallenged, with some, notably Alison Goodyear Freehling, writing that the debate was actually one act in a long struggle between conservative planter class aristocrats and democratic reformers who wished for more equitable participation in state and local affairs. Freehling stressed that the debate was "part of an ongoing contest between a white community irrepressibly divided by slavery. The struggle for political power . . . centered on slavery. Again and again, as democratic reformers challenged aristocratic conservatives for control of Virginia's government . . . a fundamental question recurred: Is slavery compatible with majority rule? Or must Virginia, to safeguard slavery, forever deny white men equal political rights?" (Freehling xii).3 Although these works focus on the historical and sociopolitical contexts, they do not engage in close rhetorical reading of the texts of the orations (Root; Aptheker; Curtis). A rhetorical analysis complicates some historical claims, notably one made by Freehling that the debate was but an additional act in a continuing struggle between democratic reformers and their aristocratic enemies. Viewed rhetorically, however, no such struggle ensued during the debate; instead, we find that many slave owners participated in substance with the activists and voted for emancipation. Viewed rhetorically, we also discover that "acceptance and defense of the 'Deep South's pro-slavery philosophy . . .'" was not as widespread or homogenous as some historians believed. The activists took great pains to identify with slave owners, and attempted to create a new vision of shared substance; traditionalists actively participated in the creation of this vision. Both sides expressed nuanced understanding of the issue, and acknowledged slavery's evil and impractical nature.

Through the analysis that follows, I reveal the historical moment's predominant attitudes and beliefs, as rhetorically expressed through the delegates' public discourse during the slavery debate. The aftermath of the Turner rebellion left Virginia in a complex and fragile state, one calling for bold yet delicate responses to the sociopolitical, material, and rhetorical dynamics. However, the way in which the speakers in this situation, the traditionalists and the activists, created their responses shows a very different understanding of the nature of the crisis, one that, when viewed rhetorically, transcends historical accounts of the debates.

A fruitful way of exploring the different understandings expressed during the debate is through the analysis of the terministic screens used by the delegates. Explaining terministic screens, Kenneth Burke wrote, "even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology, it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality" (Language as Symbolic Action 45). Certainly, a speaker's choice of words and phrases orients listeners' attention to some aspects of reality over others. Importantly, "whatever terms we use … constitute a … kind of screen…." This screen "directs [our] attention to one field rather than another." Within that field there can be different screens, each "directing attention in different ways." According to Burke, "there are two kinds of terms: terms that put things together, and terms that take things apart" (Language as Symbolic Action 49). In short, continuity and discontinuity; composition and division; for Burke, all "terminologies must implicitly or explicitly embody choices between the principle of continuity and the principle of discontinuity" (Language as Symbolic Action 50).

Looking at the debate, we see how terms open up possibilities for unity, for consubstantial co-existence even while representing different political views on emancipation; or, alternatively, we see how terms diminish the strength of a consubstantial moment by stressing division. According to Lawrence Prelli and Terri S. Winters, the "notion of terministic screens enables us to scrutinize how efforts to come to terms with problematic situations often involve similarities and differences about what meanings to reveal and conceal, disclose and foreclose. At stake in efforts to 'screen' meanings terminologically is the adequacy of underlying perspectives in depicting a situation's reality" (Prelli and Winters 226). Along these lines, Burke stressed that "much that we take as observations about 'reality' may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our particular choice of terms" (Language as Symbolic Action 46). Expanding on this notion, Paul Stob wrote that terministic screens "speak to the point at which language and experience move together. They emphasize the way that terms push us into various channels and fields, which continually shape and reshape our vision and expression" (146). Terministic screens allows us to infer the various means whereby identification occurs, so we can see how they open up or close down possibilities for consubstantiality.

Burke ascribed a strong influence to terminological screens; not so much in the sense of once uttered that they impose or compel a particular way of viewing the world, but rather they are indicative of the internal thinking of the communicator. These screens potentially have an influence upon those hearing the discourse: the nature "of our terms affects the nature of our observations, in the sense that the terms direct the attention to one field rather than to another.

Also, "many of the 'observations' are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made" (Language as Symbolic Action 46). Thus, these words and phrases can deflect, reflect, and select attention toward or away from a particular element of the Burkean pentad (Bello 243–52). Just as descriptions of acts, for instance, when viewed as representative anecdotes for a situation, are terministic screens, so too can we view descriptions of other elements of the pentad (Burke, A Grammar of Motives 199). Thus, discovering terministic screens allows us to track pentadic elements—act, scene, agent, agency, purpose—and better understand the larger, and sometimes background understanding of a situation expressed by the communicator. By examining the key terms and phrases used, we can answer very real questions concerning the nature of the observations "implicit in the terminology" chosen (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 47). We can discover how the terminologies direct attention to affect a particular quality of observation. Moreover, by determining the nature and inner workings of the terministic screens operating, we can shed insight into the Motives, or underlying worldviews, operating to shape the delegates' understanding of the situation.

In our present case, there is a strong underlying current of scenic elements throughout the debate. Scene is essentially a container of sorts for all the action in a situation; it is both context and physical location, encompassing both time and events. With a focus on scene, we have a link to the philosophy of materialism. In describing materialism, Burke cited Friedrich Paulsen, who wrote that the "reduction of psychical processes to physical is the special thesis of materialism" (Baldwin 45). Of note, texts that emphasize scene, thus having a materialistic influence, "emphasize the power of the surrounding environment or the coercive power of circumstance . . ." (McGeough and King 153). Thus, by examining the discourse, we can assess the degree to which scene, which exists outside of an agent or an agent's act, influences the actions and thoughts of that agent. Ryan Erik McGeough and Andrew King stressed the potentially deterministic nature of such discourse:

Texts that emphasize scene downplay free choice and emphasize situational determinism. They tend to emphasize the power of circumstances over individual choice. Clarence Darrow excused the behavior of many criminals by arguing that they were victims of bad heredity and merciless environment. Supporters of social welfare programs point to bad schools and failing local economies as reasons that such programs are needed. Speakers who advise accommodating to circumstances emphasize the deterministic power of scene. (156)

As will be shown later, scene is an important element in the slave debates, yet even with such a deterministic influence, the delegates were able to work against it to stress their own moral action and agency.

I demonstrate in the pages that follow how the debaters' construction of past, present, and future scenes framed their perspectives and accounts for the differences in their deployment of terministic screens. Marguerite Helmers suggested that traditional notions of Burkean scene are temporally bound (77-94); in so far as this is true, the present case study extends our notion of scene since it highlights shifting constructions and interanimations of past, present, and future scenes. As will be shared, the terministic construction of scene is central to understanding the debate's outcome, and allows us to better understand the terministic strategies used within the four distinct themes addressed by the delegates, ultimately contributing to an understanding of scene that is supportive of competing views and, ultimately, policies. Moreover, the examination of the debate shows how even in the face of an overwhelmingly coercive power of scene, willful agent-centered moral action is attainable.

The Virginia debate offers a unique opportunity to view the clashing of terministic screens on a stunningly important topic. By examining the screens used, we can see just how close the sides came to a truly consubstantial moment; additionally, identifying these contending screens allow us to see how the political actors viewed the situation, and imbued it with meaning. Such an examination of the debate can reveal the speakers' thoughts and assessments of the political climate, latent feelings, attitudes toward slavery, and a multitude of related issues. Because the activists had the larger rhetorical burden in this debate, I focused primarily on them. I began this study by examining each speech for major themes, and then determined which themes were conveyed terministically throughout the debate.4 There are four themes, each with contrasting screens: discussion of slavery, the economy, public safety/property, and morality.

The Debate

The Discussion about a Slavery Debate

For traditionalist members of the Legislature, the debate itself seemed unwise, a foolish endeavor they needed to curtail as quickly as possible. Ironically, it was traditionalist William Goode's resolution to bar the discussion of any plans for manumission that inadvertently allowed members of the Legislature to spar. The activists' first order of business, then, addressed this issue: should the Legislature even discuss slavery? Some of the activists dwelled on this subject for large portions of their orations, making it a focal point in the debate, and an issue with which they easily attacked traditionalists. James McDowell offers a telling example in his forceful introduction:

And, sir, I would not break [the silence] now; I would not open the lips which discretion should seal, were it not that the question which we are discussing, and the discussion itself, have brought a crisis on the country; have brought up a measure for decision here, of such eventful influence over the social structure and condition of the State, as to demand . . . that, guided only by his judgment and his conscious, he should stand forth, firmly and deliberately, and take his position upon it (McDowell 3).
McDowell claimed that the debate had "long been repressed by unmanly apprehensions or smothered as the dream of impracticable benevolence" (4). Like many others, he argued that every representative—by the nature of his position—had a right and obligation to fully address an issue of such great concern to the populace. The activists appealed to a common sense of duty, patriotism, and manliness, all virtues lauded in antebellum Southern rhetoric.5 Robert Powell cried: "Sir, a crisis is at hand; this great question is obliged to be met; it can no longer be evaded; and it becomes to us, as men, and as patriots, to meet it with firmness and decision, yet with caution and circumspection" (1). William Summers called the debate a "duty to ourselves"; William Roane claimed it was the "bar of patriotism"; Philip Bolling demanded "open, bold and manly" discussion (Summers; Roane; Bolling 3). Further, Bolling claimed that, "No man, who is firmly convinced that he is sustained by reason and justice, hesitates to confront his adversary," because that was "a tacit admission that reason and justice are against him" (3). Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the grandson of Thomas Jefferson, chided the representatives, claiming they had the "sagacity of the Ostrich who, if it hides its eye behind a pebble, imagines its huge body concealed from its enemies" (2). Stressing norms of virility, James Chandler acknowledged the attending females, noting the "mirth and happiness in their eye." He then goaded the men, proclaiming: "And shall man, fearless man, whose boast and pride it is to be regardless of danger, shrink from the discussion of that, which woman, lovely woman, with all her tender sensibilities and timid apprehensions, smiles at?" (Chandler 4).

Appeals to manly virtues did serve as motivational leverage, but did not squelch the opposition. The traditionalists wished to avoid discussion because they felt it would lead to widespread malcontent, and possibly incite additional slave revolts. William O. Goode described this position: The debate "is creating great pain and anxiety among a large portion of the citizens of the State, and it will raise expectations in the minds of the colored population—doomed to a disappointment which could not fail to endanger feelings highly injurious and dangerous to all parties" (1).

Charles Faulkner, a preeminent orator in the Legislature, cleverly reversed this sentiment: "There is not a county—not a town—not a newspaper—not a fireside in the state where the subject is not fully and fearlessly canvassed . . . shall we alone be found to shrink from this inquiry?" (6). Many of the state newspapers had written as much; now that the issue was in the open, they expected debate. For Faulkner and others, silence on the issue would amount to blithe neglect of their duties to their constituents, to democracy, and to Virginia. Samuel Moore admitted the debate was a "duty I owe to my constituents and to myself," so he could ensure the "future prosperity of [his] country" (1-2). These men believed their constituents deserved faithful representatives to speak for them, especially since so many Virginians considered this a crisis. By calling for direct public involvement, the representatives drew upon the ideals of democracy. Henry Berry gladly conceded, "[L]et the decision of the people be what it may, I shall cheerfully submit. I bow with submission to the will of the majority, in all matters of state" (8).

The debate was even more complex for politicians from western Virginia. The West had far fewer slaves, and most citizens wanted to maintain this balance. Western representatives, outnumbered approximately 3-to-1, had a twofold task. They had to convince the House to debate and explain how they, as Westerners—ostensibly with little vested interest—could proclaim their views on slavery. Once again, ideals of democracy and duty came to the fore; speakers also described the state as one entity, a tactic to lessen perceived differences. Faulkner defended his position by connecting the tenets of democracy and the notion that slavery directly impacted western Virginia: "I am disposed to accord to the east, exclusive legislation upon this and every other question, where the consequences of that legislation can alone affect themselves, so, in the same spirit of liberality and justice, do I claim to be heard upon any and every subject, where the effect of your legislation most fundamentally and vitally concerns my own people" (7). According to Faulkner slavery had become "a measure of vital policy with the west" for "self defense" (8). Since many slave markets had closed, and others were threatening to do so, these politicians feared that the expanding slave population would move over the mountains and into their domain. The West was now "in the same situation that the East was 100 years earlier—slaves are being imported, but [the West] wish[ed] they weren't" (Faulkner 7).

The idea of unity and community rallied the Westerners to call for the entire state to remain, in Summers's words, part of the "same political family." He further asserted that the Westerners had "come at [the Easterners'] request, not to lead and conduct the struggle, but to labor side by side, with them, to contribute whatever we may, to the success of the good cause in which we find them embarked, and which we feel to be the cause of all. I hope, Sir, that the people of the West, are yet permitted to entertain a kindly interest in the common safety, prosperity, and happiness of this Old Dominion, of which they form an integral part" (1-2).


For activists, the situation was "a crisis" of "eventful influence," one with a force such as to "demand imperatively" action; it "obliged" the assembled men to embrace their "duty" to "future prosperity." This action of discussion would enact democratic ideals: "the people," "the majority," and "public will." The public would see fear of such discussion as a "disease," "an evil." In such a scene, men must act with "judgment," and be "conscious" of allowing "unmanly" apprehensions to prevent them from discussion. They must discuss the difficult issue "as men," with a "duty" to themselves "as patriots," and with "firmness" in their decision. True men act in an "open, bold, and manly" manner, with "reason" and "justice." Certainly, if women could smile viewing the debates, men could discuss the issue with "caution and circumspection." Certainly outside the legislature the issue was being "fully and fearlessly" discussed; thus, the debate was their duty to themselves as men, to their constituents as elected officials, and finally to their state as proponents of democracy.

Ignoring these concerns could result in abhorrent consequences, even the division of the state, a prospect none found appealing. To continue the debate, the activists realized they first had to highlight their right to speak on the subject, and convince the House that the time was ripe to act.To this end, Western Virginians, although not slave owners to any large degree, were "one of the community," an "integral part," could act "disinterested," and "labor" with Easterners to contribute to the "common safety, prosperity, and happiness" of all Virginians.

Should discussion continue, traditionalists projected a future that would cause pain, anxiety, and "raise expectations." Failure to meet such expectations would lead to "feelings highly injurious" to others, "dangerous" and potentially leading to greater damage than that spawned by the rebellion. Certainly, those advocating discussion presented powerful arguments steeped in democratic tradition. In answer to such concerns, the traditionalists could only muster the specter of hurt feelings and disappointment, and a vague idea of further rebellion. Of note is that such sentiment simply begs the question of a failed emancipation. For the activists, we see a strong dominance of the present scene pressuring true men to act now for the purpose of a better future scene. For traditionalists, we see the present scene as one of relative peace, and concerns of the act of discussion leading to a future scene of chaos.

The Economy

The amended resolution proposed by Randolph had at its heart a plan conceived to alter slavery without negatively impacting Virginia's economy: "the children of all female slaves, who may be born in this state, on or after the 4th day of July 1840, shall become the property of the commonwealth, the males at the age of twenty-one years, and females at the age of eighteen, if detained by their owners within the limits of Virginia, until they shall respectively arrive at the ages aforesaid, to be hired out until the net sum arising therefrom, shall be sufficient to defray the expense of their removal, beyond the limits of the United States, and that said committee have leave to report by bill or otherwise" (Berry 8). This plan of gradual emancipation, which was not unlike many Northern states' gradual emancipation plans, sought to minimize the economic impact upon Virginia's citizens, which would have been colossal.6 An individual slave in the 1830s was worth approximately $80,000 in 2015 dollars, and the overall economic value of slaves in the entire South was over 7.4 trillion in 2015 dollars, with Virginia claiming about 28%, or almost 2.1 trillion (Williamson and Cain; Historical Census Browser).

Delegates from both sides were concerned about Virginia's economic progress. According to the 1830 Federal census, Virginia had slipped from the most populous state in 1810 to the third most populated, and could soon lose clout in the national political arena (Robert 11). Even worse, some delegates saw Virginia slipping into an economic depression, and they sought to highlight this context within the debate, ascribing the economic woes to slavery. Philip Bolling lamented of the slaveholding areas of the state: "it seems as if some judgment from heaven had passed over it and seared it; fields once cultivated, are now waste and desolate—the eye is no longer cheered by the rich verdure that decked it in other days. No, sir, but fatigued by an interminable wilderness of worn-out, gullied, piney old fields" (5).

Activists saw Randolph's adaptation of Thomas Jefferson's emancipation scheme as the best remedy. Slavery, they said, was a system that "converts the energy of a community into indolence—its power into imbecility—its efficiency into weakness," that "puts an effectual extinguisher upon all the humble aspirations of their [white laborers'] ambition," and that creates "masters [who] are prodigal, [and] slaves [who] are wasteful" (Faulkner 17; Bolling 4; Berry 8). They maintained that the only way to increase Virginia's productivity was through a system based upon free white labor. Henry Berry painted a vivid portrait of this: "Every individual . . . is stimulated by a desire to become wealthy, distinguished, independent, and powerful. All the faculties of each individual are expanded, and fully developed; each acquiring all he can, and taking care of what he does acquire; hence the mass of production of all that is essential to the comfort and happiness of man, is infinitely greater in a free, than in a slave population" (Berry 8). James McDowell echoed Berry's ideal, stating that "no proposition can be more easily or conclusively established . . . than this, that the labor of a free white man, in the temperate latitude of Virginia, is more productive than that of a slave—yielding a larger aggregate for public and for private wealth" (McDowell 4). Thus, as profitable as slaves could be, labor of free whites would be as much or more so. Traditionalists framed Randolph's proposal in opposite light. Even in gradual abolition, they saw great peril. John Thompson Brown warned that, "A few bankruptcies may go unnoticed, but it is a fearful thing to drag down an entire community from affluence and ease, to abject poverty" (Brown 8; Bolling 6).


The activists frequently pointed to Virginia's economic plight. McDowell stressed that, "it is true of Virginia, not merely that she has not advanced but that in many respects she has greatly declined; and what have we got for a compensation for this decline? Nothing but the right of property in the very beings who have brought this disparity upon us" (9). With a rapidly increasing black population and an uncertain economy, Virginia must abandon slave labor for its more efficient counterpart. The plan itself was meant to incorporate the issue in a manner respecting property rights—hence the proposed time lag of decades. Moreover, the economic burden would be non-existent since slaves would labor until they reached a specified age, and then they would work to pay their passage to Africa. For the activists, the future scene with slavery compelled a change due to "duty" and the desire for "future prosperity." They contrasted this with a past scene of Virginia as a "rich verdure" and the present scene of a Virginian "wilderness" as a "judgment from heaven." Pushing a dichotomy of existential states, activists suggested that slavery turned "energy" to "indolence," "power" to "imbecility," "efficiency" to "weakness," and was the "extinguisher of ambition." Stressing free will, the activists linked "human nature" as "free" to a "more productive" state. A free society would be a "wealthy" and "powerful" society, one in which its members would be "distinguished," "independent," living in "comfort" and with "happiness." Traditionalists countered the activists' images of Virginia's economy with specific references to successful and flourishing plantations and cities. The primary focus, however, was upon a future scene where emancipation would lead to "bankruptcies," and from "affluence and ease" to "abject poverty." "Desolation" would result even from gradual emancipation.

The economic portion of the debate thus spawned dueling scenes of both present and future Virginia. The activists' screen involves a present with slavery causing the blight existing in Virginia; emancipation would lead to a prosperous future scene. The traditionalists' framing presents a present scene in which slave holders and the state are particularly well off with slaves, contrasted to a future scene where that aspect of society, and the benefits of culture and economy, would be ruined without slaves. Thus, a future without slavery would cause an even greater blight than that envisioned by the activists should their vision hold true.

The Question of Safety/Property

Any complete discussion of emancipation necessitated debating the problem of constitutional property rights versus public safety. Traditionalists constructed their argument around a defense of private property, whereas activists viewed slavery as a threat to the public safety that outweighed any individual's right to property. Although some activists—notably William Preston—argued that slaves were not property at all, most refused to debate the issue of slaves' humanity in the eyes of the law, realizing the futility at that time of such an argument. Traditionalist Willoughby Newton epitomized the entrenched commitment of his faction to their beliefs: "I [shall not] attempt to answer the arguments of gentlemen who maintain that our property is not our own—that slaves are not property. I mean no disrespect to the gentlemen who have urged these arguments; but, sir, I would as soon attempt to convince, by argument, the midnight assassin, that my life is my own—or the highway robber that my purse is my property" (Robert 98). Some delegates, in the same breath that they admitted slavery was an evil, claimed that a man's right to property should take precedence. James Bruce asserted that slavery's "glaring and palpable defects serve to show us the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of devising any scheme of emancipation which shall be practicable, and not at the same time in direct violation of the rights of property" (2). The next day, William Daniel took this argument one step further by asserting that no matter how terrible the evils of slavery, he would not allow the Legislature to interfere with their status as possessions. "You may prove, if you can," he stated, "that slavery is immoral, unjust and unnatural; that it originated in avarice and cruelty, that it is an evil and a curse, and you still do not convince me that our slaves are not property, and as such, protected by our Constitution" (1).

In order to increase their ranks, activists had to present the argument in a manner that would accept slaves as property, while simultaneously proving it a violable right. They thus designed their responses to counter the traditionalists' argument that any effort to abolish slavery—whether immediately, or in twenty years—would undermine the sacred right to property granted by the Constitutions of both the United States and Virginia. They chose to advance their case delineating the government's role in public safety, increasing the salience of this point by referencing as often as possible slavery's intolerable danger to the public. The recently released census that warned of an increasingly large proportion of blacks in Virginia bolstered this context; men on both sides of the debate expressed concern at the extent to which the black population was growing.

Rives, a delegate not firmly aligned with either camp, estimated that with closing borders for export, "the disproportion [of blacks to whites] would become as ten or twenty to one" (2). Activist John Chandler assumed that by 1880, Virginia would have over one million slaves, "an amount too great, too appalling for a statesman not to apprehend some danger from" (Chandler 9). Faulkner asked his audience to consider the effect this huge black population could have upon the whites of Virginia: "If this immense negro population were now in arms—gathering into black and formidable masses of attack—would that man be listened to, who spoke about property—who prayed you not to direct your artillery to such or such a point, for you would destroy some of his property?" (4). Such emphasis on the rapid growth of the state's black population added an extra degree of salience to the issue, and implied a timeframe after which action would be impossible and the system inextricably entrenched.

Activists asked their audience to prioritize the main purposes of government, and in arguing for personal safety, they agilely circumvented an individual's natural right to property. Henry Berry epitomized this stance when he posited: "The use and enjoyment of all property, is always controlled by a regard for the safety of the public, as the paramount law of every state" (Berry 5). James McDowell concurred that "security is the primary purpose for which men enter into government; property, beyond a sufficiency for natural wants, is only a secondary purpose" (McDowell 15). Berry later derided the traditionalists who claimed that nothing warranted the violation of property rights: "[R]aising young tigers… might be a very lucrative business; but, sir, it probably would be very dangerous to the public; and will it be pretended that the legislature could not check it?" He warned that, "it is probably that the raising [of] young slaves will be come equally dangerous" (Berry 5). Speaking in the wake of the Southampton tragedy, activists had a readily available emotional resource. Philip Bolling capitalized on this, seeking to prove conclusively that slaves are, beyond doubt, a grave danger to the public: "Fanaticism, of all the horrid passions with which man is cursed, is the most wild and ungovernable in its character, and is the peculiar child of ignorance. Ignorance is the necessary consequence of slavery; and we all know, sir, that our slaves are not only extremely ignorant, but extremely fanatical; and, therefore, always dangerous" (4). To buttress advocates' claim about slaves' threat to the public, John Chandler invoked Southampton directly: "Has slavery interfered with our means of enjoying LIFE, LIBERTY, PROPERTY, HAPPINESS, and SAFETY? Look at Southampton. The answer is written IN LETTERS OF BLOOD, upon the floors of that unhappy county" (7). Randolph felt that the uprising was just an indicator of bloodshed to come if things did not change.

In stark contrast to the doomsday rhetoric of the activists, traditionalists gave considerable effort to paint a scene populated by docile, happy, peaceful, and harmless slaves (Gholson). They accused activists of attempting to instill paranoia in the public: "these alarmists do injustice to Virginia, and the character of our people—The dangers they imagine, do not exist—the general alarm and apprehension of which they speak, do not exist" (Gholson 2). In another attempt to minimize the perceived threat to public safety, Rice Wood made the bold claim that even the Southampton massacre should hearten Virginians and convince them of their slaves' loyalty and contentment because the majority of slaves did not turn on their masters during the massacre: "They are obedient and tractable, and most of them, as recent events show, will not only put them upon their guard against meditated danger, but will shed their blood, in their defense when it comes. In the period of two hundred years, only one instance has occurred in which a black man has been so far misguided and deluded, as to attempt to assassinate the master and his family . . ." (qtd. in Robert 81). Committee Chairman William Brodnax turned the table of argument further and depicted activists' plan of gradual emancipation as a scheme that would lead to far more bloodshed than the current situation could ever yield. Citing the arbitrariness of the July 4, 1840 cut-off for emancipation, he asked, "Will this inequality of condition, do you suppose, excite no restlessness and dissatisfaction among them? Will they not feel that the same principle which gives freedom to one entitles the others to it? Will they quietly submit to such unmerited distinctions? Will this not also lead to lawless efforts and insurrections?" (Brodnax 16).


Depicting Southampton either as anomaly or tragedy, and choosing to focus on either property rights or public safety, created widely diverging pictures of the same events and institution. The activists stressed that the growing number of slaves was simply "too great" and "too appalling," thus delegates must apprehend immediate "danger." Should the numbers continue to rise, it would lead to "formidable masses of attack." Because of this immanent danger, the "safety" of the "public" trumped property rights. Safety was a "paramount law," with public "security" the primary purpose for the state. Slaves are a "danger" since "ignorance" is a consequence of slavery; slaves are "fanatical," and ignorance and fanaticism breed danger. Because of Southhampton, slavery has interfered with Constitutional guarantees to "life," "liberty," "property" (beyond slaves themselves), "happiness," and safety. There would be bloodshed to come. Traditionalists claimed that "alarm" and "apprehension" simply did not exist. Slaves, as a people, were "happy," "contented," "peaceful," and "harmless." Moreover, they had a 200 year history of being "faithful," obedient" and "tractable," demonstrating support to the assertion that Southhampton was an aberration. The state did not have the right to "confiscate" the property of citizens. It would be "impossible" to take property without "violation" of Constitutional "rights of property." Importantly, the proposed emancipation would introduce "inequalities" of condition in the slave population, and this would led to "restlessness" and "dissatisfaction." Non-emancipated slaves would become "lawless" and provoke "insurrection."

Although there is certainly a clash between the themes of property and safety, the real clash, as in the themes of the discussion of slavery and economic impact, lies between present and future visions of order and disorder. The traditionalists have one version of the character of the slave population. They point to a dearth of insurrections and violence, which acts as an anchor for a future scene. Activists use the tragedy of Southhampton as an anchor for a future scene as well, although one in direct contrast to that depicted by the traditionalists; additionally, they point to a different character of the slave population, one closer to a common human failing, that of ignorance within humans that leads to fanaticism and danger. So there exists a clash of the nature and character of slaves within the present scene following Southhampton. Activists see an ignorant, fanatical, and growing population turning violent, with no changes leading to insurrection. Traditionalists see a generally happy, protective slave nature continuing into a future based on a 200 year past lacking violence.7 For them, change will lead to other insurrections.

Morality and the Sins of the Father

Both activists and traditionalists widely acknowledged that the system as a whole—not necessarily the individuals involved—was evil. For the activists, morality represented a complex rhetorical posture. To convince traditionalists to abolish slavery, activists had to increase the salience of the evils of slavery to spur them to action; however, attacking the morality of slavery could be seen as a personal attack on the slaveholders themselves, something that would only engender bad feelings and resistance to change. To account for this, they referred to slavery and its related issues as evil, characterizing the system in the worst light possible: "the legacy of weakness, and of sorrow," "withering under the leprosy," "the evil of slavery," "the ruin of our best hopes," "deadening oppression," "disease," "a blighting, withering curse," "injustice and oppression," "advancing enemy," "the slothful and degraded African," "cancer," "an increasing curse," and "a hideous deformity" (McDowell 23; Powell; Garland; Bolling; White 7; Campbell qtd. in Robert 104; Faulkner 9; Berry 2; Chandler 7).

The traditionalists couched slavery in much the same terms: "appalling evils of slavery," "it is a mildew," "slavery in Virginia is a . . . transcendent evil," "abhorrence for slavery," and "evils of the system." They admitted the principle of slavery was wrong: "I should be the very last to agree with [the abstract principle of slavery]," the people must "mitigate its evils," and "I acknowledge [it] to be an evil" (Dabney; Brodnax; Gallagher qtd. in Robert 112; Bruce; Brown; Gholson; Wood qtd. in Robert 81). Nevertheless, the traditionalists went on to say eliminating slavery would not be worth the exchange. John B. Shell, for example, said: "I have attempted to show to this House, that whatever the evils of slavery may be—whatever the dangers which accompany its existence—whatever the calamities it is likely to bring upon our country, our pecuniary condition and prospects are such as to render action now totally impracticable" (2). That is, eliminating slavery would cause more material, economic harm than good. The emancipatory goals of the activists demanded that they somehow express the debate in terms of morality, and increase the salience of this issue. The other themes—the merits of the debate, economic arguments, and property rights—represented lesser issues. Morality, however, was the screen through which they desired the entire issue of slavery viewed. For if the immorality was considered pressing and destructive, then the other issues would be more easily resolved.

To avoid directly attacking the traditionalists, the activists delineated a nuanced view of morality. They claimed slavery was responsible for immoral acts, but it was through no fault of the slave owners. Samuel Moore explained that the "species of labor in which slaves are usually employed . . . is very generally regarded as a mark of servitude, and consequently as degrading and disreputable" (1). It was simply by affiliation that slavery's vices were transmitted to their owners and, according to Bolling, "every system of slavery is based on injustice and oppression" (9). Thus, it was not the owner's fault, but the institution's, since one could not escape slavery's inherent shortcomings. Faulkner claimed that slavery "converts the energy of a community into indolence—its power into imbecility—its efficiency into weakness" (17). Bolling elaborated on Falkner's idea: "Slavery always had, and always must produce a great amount of idleness and vice" because freemen will not want to reduce themselves to the level of a slave (15). For these speakers, idleness was a terrible side effect, one rooted in biblical prose known to all. Bolling deplored the system as well, pointing to the sheer number of slaves as a compounding factor for the immorality: "If one half of those inhabitants are slaves, one half of the mind, and moral susceptibilities of that society, is lost to all useful purposes . . . which I esteem a greater loss to the state than any amount of money could be" (12).

Perhaps the most emphasized aspect of morality was a theme addressing the sins of the fathers. Although traditionalists initially raised this issue, activists co-opted it quickly. Early in the debate, some traditionalists claimed it was unfair to blame current slave-owners for a system enacted by an earlier generation: "it is as unkind as it is unjust to reproach a generation for misfortunes transmitted to her by generations before her, and from which no exertions of hers could relieve her. . . . We are not responsible for the existence of slavery among us" (Gholson 2). The activists in no way shrank from this assertion; they instead embraced it, and simultaneously deflected criticism from themselves. First, activists redefined the issue by accepting Gholson's posture that the present generation was not responsible for slavery. Bolling referred to the institution as "a curse entailed upon us by our ancestors," and McDowell boldly declared "slavery has come down to us from our fathers" (Bolling 4; McDowell 10). In this sense, the activists avoided blaming the current slave-owners, and removed one of the traditionalists' potential attacks. The activists then used this situation to their advantage, defining the sins of the fathers in a manner that could induce guilt if an emancipation policy remained elusive. McDowell exemplified this idea, making posterity the motivational framework. The person "who could have blotted out this curse from his country . . . would have received the homage of an eternal gratitude, who casting away every suggestion of petty interest, had broken the yoke which, in evil hour, had been imposed and had translated . . . to another continent . . ." (10).

If the arguments of posterity were insufficient, the activists touched on the personal, focusing on the legacy delegates would leave their children. Creating guilt, they claimed that their children would revile them for inaction: "[T]he question now is, shall we, in turn, hand it over to our children? Hand it over to them in every attribute of evil? Shall we perpetuate the calamity we deplore and become to posterity the objects, not of kindness but of cursing? Possessed of slaves as a private property by the act of our ancestors, shall we transmit it as such throughout an indefinite future? This is the question" (McDowell 10). Moore worried about the Legislature's "lasting influence," and Randolph implored, "Are we then prepared to barter the liberty of our children for slaves for them?" (Moore 1; Randolph 9). The sense of posterity was palpable; speakers despaired that they could be the ones who could have averted calamity, and they would be enshrined in this position for eternity. Chandler feared for Virginia's very existence, exclaiming that the delegates could inevitably destroy the State: "Will not the life, liberty, prosperity, happiness and safety, of those who may come after us, be endangered in a still greater degree by [slavery]? How, then, can we reconcile it to ourselves, to fasten this upon them? Do we not endanger our very national existence by entailing slavery upon posterity?" (7).


For the activists, slavery represented a "weakness" that perpetuated a "sorrow" and an "injustice." Institutionally it had a "withering" effect upon the collective morality; it was a "leprosy," an "evil" that ruined the state's best hope for a resplendent future. Slavery was a "deadening oppression," a "disease," "curse," and "cancer." Left unchecked, it would continue to be an "advancing enemy" that "degraded" all Virginians with "hideous deformity." Activists saw the institution of slavery as a taint that could only infect further their genteel society: it was "disreputable," based on "injustice" and "oppression." Since laborers were not free, it also bred "idleness" and "vice"; yet in a culture steeped in the Puritan work ethic, this would also infect the entire planting class and beyond.

Activists clearly saw the institution as an ancestral curse, yet one to be broken in the name of posterity. The delegates could "blot out" the curse to receive "eternal gratitude" if only they would walk away from "petty interests" and "break the yoke" of actual slavery and its influence on the citizens of the state. The demeaning present scene must not continue; their children must not inherit it. Should they give to their children a "calamity" imbued with the "attribute of evil"? Should the delegates give kindness or a curse? This focus on the negative scene actually opens the door to a prevailing call for action, with "duty" coming first in order to avert the progress of evil. For speakers living in a time when family, history, and community weighed heavily on the psyche, the charge to posterity commanded attention.

Activists, though, intrinsically linked morality to economics and a particular scene. The increase in slaves, and the supposed desolation of the land, represented the catalyst demanding that the Legislature act at this exact moment. Postponing action would only make it more difficult to remove the disease growing daily stronger. This, of course, related to the original crisis and the need to engage in debate now, before it was too late. Having argued that slavery had a deleterious effect on master as well as slave, the activists now depicted emancipation as an act of "liberty" for all of their children. The rights of life, liberty, prosperity, property, and safety would be "endangered" by inaction. Traditionalists, too, framed slavery as an appalling evil, a "mildew," that was "transcendent," "abhorrent," and a systemic evil. The moral high road, emancipation, would rectify these wrongs, but would eventuate in the ruin of the state, which itself had moral implications. They minimized transcendental moral concerns through the foil of a greater practical immorality: of property loss resulting in economic collapse—a worse fate for the children of the state. This line of reasoning raised maintaining the status quo by the traditionalists to an actual moral act. Unlike the previous three themes, with their clashing present scenes, we see the clash between the traditionalists increasingly mired in the scene and inaction, and the activists in a similar scene, stressing the moral nature of human free will and the act.


At the beginning of 1832, Virginia and the South stood at a crossroads, with the Nullification crisis ushering in a strife-filled era of rancor characterizing all politics leading up to the War Between the States. The debate in Virginia represented a final moment when slavery was discussed openly and civilly, with all sides listening and issuing sound retorts. Although civil, the political maelstrom elicited fiery orations from both sides; the burden of proof, however, was squarely on the shoulders of the activists, for they attempted to alter the very fabric of Virginia, and proposed what most considered a radical view of government interference and eminent domain. In this respect, activists had to convince the legislature to embrace a plan never attempted, never even seriously considered. The activists showed both a remarkable awareness of their audience and an adroit ability to manipulate the stances of traditionalists into tools to further the cause of gradual emancipation. That they failed should not be a cause for reproach; instead, we might ask how it was they came so close to success. In the end, fifty-eight members voted to enact Randolph's plan for gradual emancipation, and seventy-three voted against it. Out of one-hundred-and-thirty-one votes cast, the outcome would have been different had only eight members changed sides. A compromise did pass; it decried the evils of slavery, supported removal of free blacks, and left open the possibility of future legislation. The activists valiantly attempted to overthrow an institution they felt was antithetical to a glorious future. Ultimately, they failed by a slim margin. Historians view this debate as a power struggle between the rich planter class and democratic reformers, the east versus the west. Viewed rhetorically, this distinction proves problematic; instead, the contest was not so much between planter class and reformers as it was between competing visions of Virginia's present, and what moral action would present the best Virginia future. Although not successful in terms of emancipation, the debate did present a strong consubstantial moment that almost transcended differences in class and economic means.

There were, of course, four interanimated themes whose terministic screens acted to construct their respective themes in a particular manner. In terms of the discussion of slavery, activists saw the scene (present and future) as awesome in power, yet this was less powerful than the free will of the men in the legislature who could act now to change the situation. Traditionalists saw the scene (future) as awesome in power as well, yet such was its power that their acquiescence to activist action would be to abrogate their free will. In a sense, then, their non-act in the face of activists' call for change was actually an act of free will. In terms of the economy, activists did portray the present scene strongly, yet it was this description of a future scene of tragedy that compelled delegates to act for a different future scene of prosperity. Traditionalists painted a scene of relative harmony now, contrasted with a scene of tragedy if the plans of the activists were developed. Taken together, it was the scene (present/future) as awesome in power and avoiding action as an act. In terms of property/safety, the activists saw a present scene of disorder, one becoming intolerable with no action—a future disordered scene. Traditionalists stressed a present scene of order, in danger of the proposed action. Emancipation would lead to a disordered future scene, one with bankruptcy and violation of basic constitutional guarantees. In terms of morality, activists and traditionalists shared a mutual negative present scene (presenting the best opportunity for consubstantiality). Activists stressed a moral act of emancipation steeped in an agency of free will and posterity; traditionalists stressed the present scene of immorality trumped by a worse scene of economic and social ruin should emancipation pass.

Taken together, these terministic screens combined in a nexus of dramatistical importance, and in this place very forcefully point toward clashing worldviews making consubstantial moments difficult. Activists lived in a world were the present scene was one of disorder, and left unchanged would only grow worse. They urged acting now for a positive future scene of order. Traditionalists lived in a world where the present scene was one of order, and any change would be so catastrophic as to lead to devastation and a future scene of disorder. They urged an active act of inaction. Thus we have the grating of inconsubstantial elements: although both activists and traditionalists were operating from a scene-act sense of reality, the grounding understanding of scene was simply too different to fully overcome.

The nexus of these terministic screens seem to coalesce around the issue of morality. Here we see the activists' best chance at winning converts, since traditionalists in general agreed with slavery as an evil. The activists presented this in two parts. First, the area in which traditionalists agreed was the morality tainting scene of slavery that impacted the entire South, and in particular the owners of slaves. In this sense, slavery (scene) affected the person (agent). In the second part, the activists stressed the scene of slavery in which an act of emancipation occurs; thus, the act now would determine a new future scene for Virginia. The traditionalists were strongly entrenched within an unyielding scene, and the vision presented by the activists was ultimately not enough to secure the necessary majority of those opposing emancipation. They failed to provide enough of the enabling aspect to those shaped by the evil of slavery (scene). If anything, it worked to reinforce for some the notion of an intractable scene.

In the discourse of both the activists and traditionalists exists a dominance of scenic elements that suggest a philosophical materialism underpinning the discourse. Burke offers a traditional notion of materialism: "that metaphysical theory which regards all the facts of the universe as sufficiently explained by the assumption of body or matter, conceived as extended, impenetrable, eternally existent, and susceptible of movement or change of relative position" (A Grammar of Motives 131). It is "the theory which regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion . . ." (A Grammar of Motives 131). This intimates, according to Jim A. Kuypers, "that action is reduced to motion when scene dominates. In this sense, only the material is significant; that which is observable, touchable, and measurable takes precedence over other concerns. This materialistic motive also allows pressure to be placed upon those interpellated within the scene. We are a part of that which is occurring, but we are not necessarily able to remove ourselves from it" ("From Science" 154-155). This is clearly the case with the traditionalists, who created a scenic understanding of both present and future so compelling that many delegates were simply unable to embrace the morally liberating act offered by the activist discourse. However, the focus on the scene was not of an overwhelming domination, placing crass materialism (love for property) over the moral cleansing offered by the activists. Instead, the traditionalists were, as were the activists, allowing the situation to influence their act. For traditionalists, not joining the activists was itself an act, an act whose purpose represented both acquiescence to the present generational curse of slavery, and the moral act of saving a society and culture whose future was uncertain in the face of the actions of the activists.

The materialism inherent in this domination of scene suggests human action replaced by human motion; the scene is so strong that only what we can observe is important. For Burke: "things are more or less real according as they are more or less energeia [activity] (actu, from which our 'actuality' is derived). [F]orm is the actus, the attainment, which realizes the matter" (A Grammar of Motives 227). Insofar as this is true, we can see both activists and traditionalist enacting their plans in accordance to the form suggested by their respective scenes, the sequence of the act. The scene in this case did not enervate action, because both activists and traditionalists provided for a moral aspect of response, thus embracing that morally vital side of a human agent who can act independently of the scene. In our present case, either act of the activists (emancipation) or traditionalists (status quo), viewed morally, allows for redemption and purification of Virginia society from the guilt caused by the Southhampton tragedy.

In response to the scene, both sides called for a moral agent acting now. Although not dominating the discourse, the strength of the acts described flow well from the scene, and strongly implies a philosophical realism underpinning this aspect of the discourse. This correlates well with the activists' focus on the situation as it is now, and how action is necessary to alter Virginians' shared future. Realism is the belief "in the real existence of matter as the object of perception (natural realism); also, the view that the physical world has independent reality, and is not ultimately reducible to universal mind or spirit." In this sense, a realist motivation suggests "the existence of objects in the external world independently of the way they are subjectively experienced"; thus, a division between the stark facts of a situation and the subjective or idealistic interpretation of those facts ("Realism"). By focusing on the facts, the activists were actually inviting the traditionalists to participate in a potentially consubstantial moment in shaping Virginia's future. As Bernard L. Brock, Robert L. Scott, and James W. Chesebro wrote, "the realist grammar begins with a tribal concept and treats the individual as a participant in substance" (188). In our present case, the activists initially had to overcome the sense that they were all from Western Virginia, and thus distinct from their considerably more numerous, and slave holding, Eastern brethren. The underlying stress on action presented such an opportunity. Here we can see the underlying, although competing, cycles of redemption with activists and traditionalists. Following Burke's notion of Motivation, we can trace how the activists and traditionalists established a redemptive cycle within their discourse, and also how both sides allowed for an agent-centered moral action that worked for the possibility of a redemptive transcendence of the problem. As Burke suggested, by analyzing the terministic screens used to discuss the situation, we determined how the delegates named "their structure and outstanding ingredients, and name[d] them in a way that contain[ed] an attitude toward them" (The Philosophy of Literary Form 1).8 It is within these elements that the motives underpinning the delegates' discourse reside. Ultimately, it is within these motives that we can gain insight and understanding into how the discourse worked to secure action. Put another way, we can see how the delegates allowed opportunity for consubstantial moments on the issue of emancipation.

Importantly, both the traditionalists and activists have calls for action, with both envisioning a moral agent acting now. It is in this action that the third phase of the dramatistic cycle—redemption—will occur. For the activists, if the act is for good (emancipatory; redemptive), the present and future scenes are recast and society is saved. If there is no action, then guilt and pollution remain, the scene will continue to dominate and a moral taint and threat to safety remain. For the activists, there is no need for a scapegoat or mortification, only right action, one that embraces an idealism of a new future scene. In contrast, the traditionalists also envision a moral agent acting now, through which we can also see the third phase of the cycle of redemption. For the traditionalists, if the act is good (preserving social order, culture, and society from the fallout of Southhampton; redemptive), the present and future scenes are recast and society is saved. Their action is actually deliberate inaction, thus empowered by their view of the scene instead of being sheer motion. For the traditionalists, the action of the activists would result in added guilt and pollution, the scene would become even worse with the immoral act of leaving only devastation for their children.

Through this moral struggle, a redemptive transformation is within reach: both activists and traditionalists are the agents of the act, and imbued with certain idealism; they are empowered individuals who exist in a society dominated by a guilt-ridden and polluted scene. To better understand potential consubstantial moments, we can argue that the dialectical pairs (in this case the elements of the pentad) "are not merely to be placed statically against each other, but in given poetic contexts usually represent a development from one order of motives to another" (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 11). With this in mind, we can better understand the qualitative progression from scenic domination to a delegate's act. In understanding the power of these envisioned acts, we must pause and look again at the debate as a whole so that we see how the terministic screens employed by the delegates acted to reflect their realities, deflect both their own and others' perceptions of reality, and select certain aspects of reality to highlight. Importantly, we also see how these screens acted to encourage certain notions of continuity and discontinuity with Virginia's past. It is in these moments that we can see where there were true possibilities for consubstantial action, and where the respective terministic screens locked-in certain interpretations of reality that would make consubstantial moments unlikely.

A clash occurred throughout the debate between the scenes embraced between the activists and the traditionalists. Both groups seemed to embrace a notion of action based on human free will that could mitigate the dangers of these scenes; unfortunately, the natures of the scenes were so different as to prevent a consubstantial moment where joint action would act for both groups in a society-wide redemptive moment. The best hope for this redemption was in the area of moral concerns, where both groups shared in the substance of an immoral present scene mired in the degrading spectacle of slavery. It is in this area perhaps, where worldviews coalesced, that both activists and traditionalists were able to jointly operate from a realist grammar. In discussing what act to take to remove the present scene, true persuasion operated and the delegates were able to ensconce their arguments in notions of human free will necessary for true moral action. The activists began the debate heavily outnumbered, and in the end, fell only eight votes shy of achieving their goals. Ultimately their idea of a moral act of free will to step out of the moral quagmire of slavery was overshadowed by a compelling vision of the moral quagmire of slavery replaced by, in the eyes of the traditionalists, a deeper moral quagmire of a future Virginia desolate and ruined by emancipation.


This project was a recipient of the South Atlantic Studies Initiative Award, College of Liberal Arts & Human Sciences, Virginia Tech; an earlier version of this paper was presented as the Top Competitive Paper of the Burke Division at the Southern States Communication Association Convention, Tampa, 2015. For their contributions to this project, the author wishes to thank Elsbeth R. Drews and Alston B. Ramsay, both students in his Southern Oratory Seminar at Dartmouth College, Ashley Gellert, his research assistant at Virginia Tech, Nneka Logan, his colleague at Virginia Tech, and the anonymous KBJ reviewers.


1. Black and Native American slaveholders were not present during this debate. At the time, fewer than 5% of Southern whites owned slaves, and of those who did, only the top 1% of this number owed more than 50 slaves. In 1830, approximately 12% of free blacks in Virginia owned slaves.

2. According to the 1830 census, Virginia's slave population was 469,755.

3. In addition to Freehling, others, as early as Thomas R. Dew, advanced that the debate was not a complete endorsement of slavery, but contained elements of eventual emancipation, and denied slavery as a perpetual good.

4. By themes I mean the subject of discussion, or that which is the subject of the thought expressed. See Kuypers, "Framing Analysis"

5. See Waldo W. Braden, The Oral Tradition in the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983); W. Stuart Towns, Oratory and Rhetoric in the Nineteenth-Century South: A Rhetoric of Defense (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998).

6. In 1830, these Northern states still had slaves: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan (territory), New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

7. We do know now that there were insurrections in the South before that period, but should resist the urge to suggest duplicitous motives on the part of delegates advancing such argument as those represented here. Without the presence of mass media, many smaller insurrections and violent actions simply never made it out of the boundaries of the county or state in which they occurred. See Aptheker for an overview of such insurrections.

8. See also pages 6, 298-304. For a detailed discussion of Burke's notion of motive see, Andrew King. "Motive." The American Communication Journal vol. 1 no. 3, 1998, See, too, J. Clarke Rountree, III. "Coming to Terms with Kenneth Burke's Pentad, The American Communication Journal vol. 1 no. 3, 1998,

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