Another Southerner who wanted to free slaves… but…

Posted on May 14, 2011 by


… his motivations weren’t centered on freeing slaves as an issue of morality.

Dr. Henry Ruffner

Dr. Henry Ruffner was well-educated (Washington College, and Princeton, where he received his D.D.), and headed several Presbyterian pastorates in Rockbridge County, Virginia (not to mention one near his family’s salt works in the Kanawha Valley). He was also a fairly active writer for his time, having published A Discourse upon the Duration of Future Punishment (Richmond, 1823), Inaugural Address (Lexington, 1837), and Judith Bensaddi, a Romance (1840).

His most interesting publication, however, was An Address to the People of West Virginia (Lexington, Va., 1847), which came about as a result of a presentation that Ruffner had made to the Franklin Society, in Lexington, Virginia, in August 1847. In fact, within weeks of having made the presentation, several western Virginia notables, such as former Gov. Samuel McDowell Moore, future Gov. John Letcher, and John Echols, petitioned Ruffner to publish his address.

In its subtitle, the address made clear that slavery was “injurious to the public welfare, and that it may be gradually abolished without detriment to the rights and interests of slaveholders.” However, if one takes time to read carefully and understand the nature of Ruffner’s approach, by no means did his argument ring in tune with the nature of abolitionists as we understand them.

From the outset, Ruffner noted that the institution of slavery had not been as successful in the western portion of the state as it had in the eastern portion, and had done nothing more than harm the area through economics and by discouraging immigrants from settling in the region. With that in mind, Ruffner supported freeing the slaves, but as a way to free whites, not blacks, from the economic drag of slavery. He was also of the mind that slavery deterred immigrants, and had influenced the emigration of many citizens (this brings to mind something that I brought up in a post from some time back, where the division within a particular church in the Valley… actually, the county of Ruffner’s birth… made several folks relocate to Ohio, all because of disagreements over slavery, but as a moral issue, not as a matter of economics). I’d say it might still be more than a lifetime of work to prove, but Ruffner projected that as many as 300,000 may have left Virginia because of slavery (and, again, he was talking about the impact slavery had on jobs, not slavery as a moral issue).

She has sent—or we should rather say, she has driven from her soil—at least one third of all the emigrants, who have gone from the old States to the new. More than another third have gone from the other old slave states . . .. These were generally industrious and enterprising white men, who found by sad experience, that a country of slaves was not the country for them. It is a truth, a certain truth, that slavery drives free laborers, — farmers, mechanics, and all, and some of the best of them too — out of the country

As a solution, Ruffner, using the Great Valley of Virginia (which he considered from Montgomery County north to the Potomac) as the primary platform of action, proposed a gradual and complete emancipation in Virginia (this is where he probably irked eastern slaveholders the worst). After freeing the slaves, Ruffner also proposed a program of colonization or deportation of the former slaves to Liberia (of course, keying off earlier efforts made in that direction). Joining with his father in the argument, with his publication of a sermon he made in Philadelphia in 1852, William Henry Ruffner (Washington College, 1842) also saw this as an favorable opportunity for its “missionary aspects”, and proposed a program of education before re-colonizing freed slaves in Liberia.

While the complexities behind emancipation and colonization were vast, Ruffner’s argument boiled down to the fact that once the slaves were gone, white’s could again have opportunity to find jobs that were otherwise being consumed by the use of slave labor.

Ultimately, it appears that a good deal of support for Ruffner’s argument was limited to those counties west of the Blue Ridge while the more politically dominant and influential eastern section of the state, with considerably more slaveholders with larger interests in preserving the institution, denounced such actions. Though an attempt was made in 1857 to test Ruffner’s theory in Wayne County, Virginia (now West Virginia), the experiment failed because of the inability of some investors to contribute and the fact that a national economic depression had come along.

The Ruffner Pamphlet

See an earlier piece, here, about another Southerner who wanted slaves to be freed… but was influenced more out of morality than economics.

Also, see this piece regarding Lincoln’s plan to colonize freed slaves.