“a runaway… a negro man who calls himself PHIL”, OTD, 1814

Posted on September 28, 2016 by


From the front page of the Sept. 28, 1814 edition of the Maryland Herald and Hagers-town Weekly Advertiser, we have a listing announcing the runaway of a slave (out of the lower Shenandoah Valley) owned by Ferdinand (aka Ferdinando) Fairfax:

While this may just appear to be yet another listing for another runaway slave, give it a second look. The name “Fairfax” should lead the reader to investigate a little more.

Ferdinando Fairfax was the nephew of Thomas Fairfax, Sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron… specifically, THE Lord Fairfax, known rather well in “these parts” of Virginia. Ferdinando also happened to be godson of George and Martha Washington. Given the context of the runaway advertisement, however, that’s secondary to what Ferdinando put to paper, regarding slavery, in 1790.

In his “Plan for Liberating the Negroes within the United States”, Fairfax wrote:

The subject has afforded, in conversation, a wide field for argument, or rather, speculation, both to friends and opposers of emancipation. While the former plead natural right and justice, which are considered as paramount to every other consideration; the latter insist upon policy, with respect both to the community and to those who are the objects proposed to be benefited; the one party considers liberty as a natural right, which we cannot, without injustice, withhold from this unhappy race of men; the other, at the same time that it admits these principles, poses a general emancipation, on account of the inconveniences which would result to the community and to the slaves themselves, and which, consequently, would render it impolitic; besides the injustice which would be done to individuals by a legislative interference (without voluntary consent) in private property, which had been acquired and possessed under the laws of the country. But no practicable scheme has yet been proposed, which would unite all these principles of justice and policy, and thereby remove all ground the opposition; all that has hitherto been offered to the public upon this subject, has been addressed, rather to the feelings, than to the cool and deliberate judgment…

It seems to be the general opinion, that emancipation must be gradual; since, to deprive man, at once, of all his right in the property of his negroes, would be the height of injustice, and such as, in this country, would never be submitted to; and the resources of government are by no means adequate to making at once a full compensation. It must therefore be by voluntary consent – consequently in a gradual manner. It is equally agreed, that, if they be emancipated, it would never do to allow them all the privilege of citizens; they would therefore form a separate interest from the rest of the community. There is something very repugnant to the general feelings, even in the thought of there being allowed that free intercourse, and the privilege of intermarriage with the white inhabitants, which the other freemen of our country enjoy, and which only can for, one common interest. The remembrance of their former situation, and a variety of other considerations, forbid this privilege – and as a proof, where is the man of all those who have liberated their slaves, who would marry a son or a daughter to one of them? and if he would not, who would? So the prejudices, sentiments, or whatever they may be called, would be found to operate so powerfully as to be insurmountable. And though the laws should allow these privileges, yet the same effect would still be produced, of forming a separate interest from the rest of the community; for the laws cannot operate effectually against the sentiments of the people.

If this separate interest of so great a number in the same community, be once formed, by any means, it will endanger the peace of society; for it cannot exist between two neighboring states, without danger to the peace of each – How much less, then, between the inhabitants of the same country?

This suggests the propriety, and even necessity or removing them a distance from this country. It is therefore proposed.

There’s a great deal more which you can read of Fairfax’s plan, here (p. 207, Documents for America’s History, Vol. 1), and I highly recommend doing so in order to understand, more clearly, what he envisioned (keeping in mind, of course, the context/times in which it was written).

Remarkably, during his service as justice of the peace in Jefferson County, Ferdinando was also the largest slaveholder in the county… indeed, another case of the eastern/Tidewater/Northern Neck Virginia slaveholding elite, removed to the Shenandoah Valley (especially Clarke and Jefferson counties), who were involved, someway, in ideas regarding the gradual emancipation of slaves. Also, while not the specific outline of what would appear later with the efforts of the American Colonization Society (ACS), the roots of that idea seem to be in Fairfax’s plan (which, by the way, was not entirely his own creation, but, rather, his vision of earlier thoughts on the matter). As I’ve stated before, while my awareness of the ACS is not new, I am curious as to the mentality as it existed in the Shenandoah Valley, both in the minds of the large slaveholders, and in the minds of those who were not particularly participants in the “peculiar institution” in the first place.

If you’re interested in a bit more about the life of Ferdinando Fairfax, check out his biography in Wikipedia.

While I enjoy searching for these OTD pieces, this is a particular gem, as it reveals a lot more than that which appears in the clipping itself.