Slavery and the Making of the University University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Manuscripts Department Slavery and the Making of the University

Writings and Speeches on Slavery

Monument Unsung Founders Memorial, UNC-Chapel Hill campus, 2005. Photograph by Stephen J. Fletcher.

Throughout the antebellum era slavery was one of the issues to which the students repeatedly returned in their compositions and debates. At times they were critical of it, but overall they upheld it as an institution. At first there seemed to be no stigma attached to the expression of negative views. After all, in a debate both sides of the question had to be argued. But over time the rhetoric became increasingly strident, and negative views were less and less tolerated.

In 1799 Jeremiah Battle, whose family owned slaves, penned a composition in the form of a letter "To a friend in the country." He advised his friend not to equate happiness and success with the acquisition of "a great number of slaves." In 1807 the Dialectic Society debated the question, "Ought slavery to be abolished in the United States?" and decided in the affirmative. Just five years later the society argued "Would the emancipation of the Slaves be beneficial to the United States?" and decided it would not.

The specter of disunion appeared as early as the 1830s. Judge William Gaston spoke at the Commencement of 1832, plainly stating his view that slavery was evil and imploring the students to do everything they could to protect the Union. Gaston's "bold language did not weaken his standing in the State," according to Kemp P. Battle's History of the University of North Carolina. In fact, his speech went through five printings.

Faculty members were prohibited from espousing sectarian religious or partisan political views. Yet they sometimes made known their opinions on slavery. Elisha Mitchell did so in 1848 with no ill consequences. But in 1856 Benjamin Hedrick was dismissed for writing an editorial in which he stated his agreement with John C. Fremont's position that slavery should not be extended to the territories.

Benjamin S. Hedrick, undated. North Carolina Collection Photographic 

          Archives. Benjamin S. Hedrick, undated. Click on the image to open a larger version in a new window.


Despite his scientific credentials, Benjamin S. Hedrick's reputation is based largely on the fact that he was dismissed from the university in 1856 for publicly expressing his views on slavery. It all began when, leaving the polls at the state election in August, he met several students who questioned him about the upcoming presidential election. "One asked whether if there were a Fremont ticket [Hedrick] would support it." Hedrick said he would. Another asked "whether in case the South were attacked by [the] North" he would support the North. Hedrick said no (quotations from University Papers #40005).

Rumors began to circulate that Hedrick's opinions were more radical than they really were. Several weeks later an article entitled "Fremont in the South" appeared in The North Carolina Standard advocating the ouster of those with "black Republican opinions" from the colleges and seminaries of the state. Soon after that a letter with a similar bent appeared, signed by "An Alumnus." Hedrick, whom Swain described as having "the courage of a lion and the obstinacy of a mule," could not resist answering the charges against him.

From the North Carolina Collection

4 October 1856. The North Carolina Standard (opens in a new window). In his letter to The Standard Hedrick explained that he did not believe that slavery should be abolished in the states where it had always existed. He did believe, like Fremont, that it should not be extended to the territories. He pointed out that Washington and Jefferson also had held this opinion. "And when 'Alumnus' talks of 'driving me out' for sentiments once held by these great men, I cannot help thinking that he is becoming rather fanatical . . . Alumnus has also made another mistake, in supposing that the Faculty take upon themselves to influence the political opinions of the students . . . I know of no institution, North or South, from which partisan politics and sectarian religion are so entirely excluded. And yet we are too often attacked by the bigots of both." Film CO71 S78.

12 November 1856. The Hillsborough Recorder. Announcement of the dismissal of Professor Hedrick for engaging in political conflicts. VC071 H65.

From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

6 October 1856. Benjamin S. Hedrick to Governor Bragg. Hedrick explains why he published the letter in the Standard.

14 October 1856. Benjamin S. Hedrick to Charles Manly. Both the faculty and the trustees voted to dismiss Hedrick. The reason they cited was that he had violated the "usages" of the faculty by engaging in partisan politics. In this letter to Charles Manly, which Hedrick wrote before the final decision, he argues "there are instances when . . . the usage may be disregarded." He notes that "about eight years ago one of the ablest and most learned professors in the university thought it incumbent on himself to define his position on the slavery question." He is referring here to Elisha Mitchell's The Other Leaf of Nature and the Word of God.

28 October 1856. Benjamin S. Hedrick to Charles Manly. Hedrick thanks Manly for making "the blow fall as lightly as you could."

From Records of the General Faculty and Faculty Council #40106 (connect to finding aid).

6 October 1856. Proceedings of the faculty regarding Hedrick's actions.


From the North Carolina Collection

Gaston, William. Address Delivered before the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies at Chapel Hill, N.C., June 20, 1832. Raleigh: Joseph Gales & Son, 1832. Judge Gaston was one of the state's most prominent jurists and a member of the Board of Trustees from 1802 until his death in 1844. This address is perhaps his most famous and was delivered at the Commencement of 1832. For nearly twenty pages Gaston exhorts the students to strive for excellence, to maintain honesty and integrity in all things, and to serve the public. Then he tells them, "On you too will devolve the duty which has been too long neglected . . . for the ultimate extirpation of the worst evil that afflicts the Southern part of our Confederacy. Full well do you know to what I refer . . . it is Slavery which, more than any other cause, keeps us back in the career of improvement." He ends by imploring his audience not to allow the conflict over slavery to result in disunion. C378 UK3 1832G.3

Elisha Mitchell A Memoir of the Rev. Elisha Mitchell . . . Chapel Hill: J.M. Henderson, Printer to the University, 1858. Frontispiece. North Carolina Collection.

Mitchell, Elisha. The Other Leaf of the Book of Nature and the Word of God. 1848. This work is Mitchell's apology for slavery. In it he explores numerous Biblical texts and other writings on the ownership of property and concludes that slavery is no worse than other forms of holding property. "It is remarkable how many warnings, counsels, expostulations, and commands the New Testament contains, all having reference to the danger of riches," he observes. Yet "God has said nothing expressly" against slaveholding. "I am the owner of a few slaves," he continues, "of certain tracts of land of no great value, and of some other property. If it is a sin to hold the first, it is a sin to hold the others. If I were to be convinced that it is a sin to hold the first, I would abandon them all." Though he belittles his possessions, Mitchell was actually wealthier than the average man. Cp326.7 M68o.


From Dialectic Society Records #40152 (connect to finding aid).

17 April 1799. Battle, Jeremiah. Letter, "To a friend in the country."

4 February 1818? Jones, Hamilton Chamberlain. Address, "Remarks on the Trial of an African."

9 July 1807. Jones, John D. Debate, "Ought Slavery to be Abolished in the United States?" At the 9 July 1807 meeting of the Dialectic Society, John D. Jones of Wilmington argued the negative in a debate on the question "Ought Slavery to Be Abolished in the United States?" His main point was that the best interests of the country trumped any notion of natural rights. To those who would argue that slavery was contrary to the Constitution, he answered that the "necessity which influenced the importation of negroes and the impracticality of ever getting clear of them make this inconsistency appear nominal only." But the other debaters must have been more convincing because, according to the minutes of the meeting, the question was "determined in the affirmative."

21 November 1818. Morehead, James Turner. Address on slavery.

23 June 1837. Long, William John. Debate, "Should Texas be admitted into the Union?"

28 July 1838. McNeill, Angus Currie. Debate, "Should Congress receive petitions for the Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia?"

20 June 1832. Owen, William Hayes. Debate, "If a separation of the Union were to take place, is it probable that a monarchical form of government would be established?" The question was decided in the negative.

March 1857. McNab, James. Address, "Our Union, Will It Be Preserved?"

[1858] Sykes, Edward T. Senior oration, "Two sections of the Union."

7 November 1858. Withers, Elijah B. Senior oration, "The American Union a Failure."

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