RALEIGH – Doing the right thing means making difficult choices.
American history is full of examples. Whether it be the infuriating impositions of the Stamp Act, the grave injustices of slavery, or the grotesque intrusions of eugenics, Americans have had to decide how best to respond to tyrants in power – and sometimes to tyrants next door.
Far too many people have made the wrong choice. Afraid to sacrifice their reputations, their ambitions, their property, or their personal liberty, they have chosen to look the other way.
Here in North Carolina, for example, the state operated a eugenics program for decades that sterilized thousands of North Carolinians against their will – on the grounds that their mental or physical infirmities made them unfit to reproduce. Rather than speak out against this practice, many of the state’s most-influential citizens either ignored or participated in it.
The 18th century Virginia planter and Quaker leader John Pleasants chose differently when faced with his own era’s injustices. As early as the 1760s, John Pleasants and his son Robert Pleasants had concluded that the institution of slavery was abhorrent to God and inconsistent with the principles of a free society. They resolved to do something about it.
On the matter of slavery, John and Robert Pleasants were not bystanders. They were among the biggest slaveholders in Virginia’s Henrico County, near Richmond. Their Curles Neck Plantation was home to hundreds of slaves. Although the Pleasants family had long treated their slaves kindly, as they thought their Quaker faith demanded, it wasn’t until sometime in the 1760s that they fully embraced abolition.
The problem with “doing something about it” was that at the time, it was illegal for Virginians to manumit, or free, their slaves. If John Pleasants had simply declared the workers at Curles Neck free and sought to pay them, he would have been subjected to punishment and his workers to re-enslavement by other planters.
Perhaps such an act of civil disobedience might have advanced the cause of abolition a bit, but at great cost – particularly to the slaves themselves. Pleasants had other options, however. He could have attempted to take his slaves out of Virginia, either in small groups or en masse, and then free them elsewhere. Or I suppose he could have attempted to organize a broad-scale insurrection against the Virginia government. But neither option had much prospect of success.
Pleasants opted for a different course. Recognizing that there was growing sentiment among influential young Virginians such as Thomas Jefferson to at least limit the scope of slavery by prohibiting importation of new slaves and legalizing manumission, Pleasants rewrote his will. It now contained a provision that would free all of his slaves if Virginia ever legalized manumission.
Pleasants died in 1771. His son Robert Pleasants then became one of the founders of the abolition movement in Virginia. He wrote frequent letters to prominent citizens such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry exhorting them to support manumission, the education of slaves and freed blacks, and the legal abolition of slavery itself.
Right after the American Revolution, there was a burst of anti-slavery sentiment in Virginia. It didn’t last, unfortunately, but a 1782 law legalized the manumission of slaves for a time. Robert Pleasants immediately liberated the slaves he had inherited from his father, and built one of the first schools for free blacks. The Gravel Hill community soon grew up around the school – one of the first communities of free blacks in the South.
But other relatives refused to follow suit. So Robert Pleasants, the executor of his father’s estate, went to court in the 1790s to carry out his father’s wishes. His attorney in the resulting case of Pleasants v. Pleasants was none other than John Marshall, the future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
They were successful. In 1799, the slaves at Curles Neck were freed, and joined the growing Gravel Hill community.
John Pleasants was my 6th great-grandfather. When faced with injustice, he chose a middle course – to challenge it through moral suasion and the courts, rather than ignoring it or resorting to insurrection.
What would you do?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.