Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Ivy and Slavery

by Alfred L. Brophy on Aug 20, 2001

Alfred L. Brophy

Three graduate students at Yale University have rained on the parade of that university’s 300th anniversary by bringing to light Yale’s involvement with holding and trading slaves in the nineteenth century.

Many of Yale’s colleges and buildings are named after slaveowners. Even John C. Calhoun, the most notorious pro-slavery thinker of them all, has a college named after him there. Yale is not alone here. Profits from the harsh slave plantations of the Caribbean funded Harvard Law School’s first endowed chair. The family that founded Brown made much of its money on the slave trade. Slaves worked on the Princeton campus when slavery was legal in northern states.

The recent discussion of slavery at universities like Yale leads one to ask why all that matters. Many think that a university’s taking money made from slavery and honoring those who were slaveholders is simply irrelevant; they say, “We don’t believe in slavery now and back then people had different values.” So why should we impose our standards of morality on university administrators of nearly two hundred years ago?

But slavery actually was condemned by more than a few intellectual leaders in early America. In the 1680s, shortly after the settlement of Pennsylvania, Quakers, led by Francis Daniel Pastorius, made the first efforts to discourage slavery. Those protests gathered strength in the early 1700s as such people as Samuel Sewell condemned slavery in Massachusetts.

In the wake of the American Revolution, many who were inspired by Enlightenment ideas that taught the fundamental equality of humanity urged the abolition of slavery. Writers such as St. George Tucker, a law professor at William and Mary, proposed the gradual abolition of slavery in the South. The power of the idea of liberty was strong and could have grown stronger with proper nourishment from great institutions like Yale.

People knew slavery was wrong, but the problem was that the leading institutions — churches, schools and courts — failed to support antislavery reformers. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” reached the hearts of Americans. Many readers — it was the best-selling novel in history to that point — wanted to take action against slavery. But they found it difficult to break free from the constraints of their communities, for many churches, political parties and laws tacitly supported slavery. Stowe pessimistically concluded that “from the great institutions in society, no help whatever is to be expected.”

Great institutions such as Yale should not, therefore, escape condemnation by saying that slavery was acceptable at the time. Had there been more support from the great bastions of moral power there might have been change. Instead, Yale took money made from slavery, and named colleges after slaveholders and even pro-slavery politicians.

And it educated others to follow in those steps. It should come as no surprise that its students accepted slavery. While Ralph Waldo Emerson was telling students to reject slavery as an outmoded idea, orators at Yale ridiculed him. When the Amherst College president spoke at Yale in 1839, he laughed at Emerson’s idea that students should be taught to think independently.

In the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required northerners to return fugitive slaves to their southern owners, orators at Yale, Harvard and Brown argued fiercely in favor of the act. They vilified abolitionists who broke the law, protecting humans from being sent back into slavery. In history and philosophy classes at universities throughout the country, professors who themselves were slaveholders or beneficiaries of slavery reinforced the belief that slavery was the natural order, that people were not created equal, that utilitarian principles taught that some should be slaves.

There are some lessons in this for us. It reminds us that many times universities are the products and beneficiaries of the powerful and affluent interests (in this case what used to be called the “slave power”). And so universities are often more likely to justify than to condemn those interests. Those who say, “Do not condemn a school for decisions that were acceptable at the time,” are just more in a long line of thinkers, stretching back to the pro-slavery advocates of the 1800s, who believe with Alexander Pope that “whatever is, is right.” They may honestly, if mistakenly, believe that slavery was morally acceptable in the 1800s. They may believe that universities that attacked abolitionists while honoring slaveholders are free from moral guilt.

Maybe we can learn from Yale’s complicity in slavery.  Perhaps we can remember Emerson’s lesson that it is the duty of the scholar to rethink old ideas and be “the bringer of hope.” And it is the job of the universities to lead the way.

Alfred L. Brophy is a professor of law at the University of Alabama and a writer for the History News Service. His book on the Tulsa race riot of 1921 will be published later this year.