Revulsions of Capital: The Political Law of Slavery in the Epoch of the Turner Rebellion, Virginia 1829-1832

106 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2014

See all articles by Christopher Tomlins

Christopher Tomlins

University of California, Berkeley - Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program

Date Written: August 6, 2014


This paper continues the pattern of work I have been pursuing on the Turner Rebellion, a slave rebellion that took place in Virginia in August 1831. During the past two years I have been engaged in preliminary explorations of different aspects of the rebellion that have resulted in a series of working papers, written to teach myself what I don’t know, and what I should. This paper was written for the same purpose; it differs from prior papers in stepping back from the rebellion itself in order to situate it in Virginia’s constitutional history, and in regard to the debate over gradual emancipation that broke out in its aftermath. Essentially, Virginia in the epoch of the Turner Rebellion is a state divided largely on east-west lines. Slavery dominates east of the Blue Ridge in the long-settled Tidewater and Piedmont; the west (particularly the Trans-Allegheny region that would eventually become the state of West Virginia) is much more recently settled and largely slave-free. This division, together with less marked local slaveholder/non-slaveholder and freeholder/non-freeholder distinctions in the east of the state, largely determines the substance and structure of Virginia’s politics. I consider two “phases” of Virginia’s politics: (1) the Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830, in which Eastern and Western delegates fought over the replacement of county-based apportionment and suffrage that privileged freehold in land by white basis apportionment and white manhood suffrage, and (2) the emancipation debate that took place in 1831-32 during the first session of the state legislature to meet following the Turner Rebellion. I also consider the analysis of the emancipation debate written in 1832 by the William & Mary professor of “political law” Thomas Roderick Dew, Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832. I argue that out of the deep divisions exposed by the constitutional and legislative debates there emerged a new political and economic equilibrium, confirmed in Dew’s analysis, and centered not, as before, upon propertied hierarchy but upon property’s commodification, notably commodified labor. In the case of self-possessed white labor, commodification meant increased circulation. The same was true of enslaved labor, with the important qualification that slaves had no control over how far they were circulated. Slavery became transactional – the price of subsistence. Their commodification meant slaves were no longer harnessed to custom (in the shape of common law property claims), or to positive municipal law, or to paternal stewardship, but instead represented a capital investment on which the master-creditor might realize returns either through work, or, just as rationally, sale into the interstate slave trade. The paper concludes with a short analysis of Virginia’s contribution to that trade before and after the Turner Rebellion.

Keywords: Capital, Slavery, Politics, Law, History

JEL Classification: B10, N31

Suggested Citation

Tomlins, Christopher, Revulsions of Capital: The Political Law of Slavery in the Epoch of the Turner Rebellion, Virginia 1829-1832 (August 6, 2014). UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2477048, Available at SSRN: or

Christopher Tomlins (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program ( email )

Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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