“A Positive Evil”: The Haitian Revolution and Abolition in the 1834 Tennessee State Constitutional Convention

By Seth Whitty

During the 1834 Tennessee State Constitutional Convention, a group of delegates created a report on whether the Convention should enact a measure that would grant the emancipation of enslaved people in the state. The report forcibly rejected any notion of emancipation by contending that it would destroy “the peace, the prosperity, nay the very existence of society.” To justify this claim, it reminded the other delegates of the Haitian Revolution by emphasizing the “bloody scenes of St. Domingo,” and asked them not to be persuaded by the “misguided fanatics” of abolition.[1] The specters of the Haitian Revolution and abolition in the report influenced the county delegates to create draconian acts within the 1834 Constitution, such as restricting the right to bear arms to only White men. The Convention revealed that acts of defiance against bondage were co-opted by White politicians to solidify slavery in Tennessee. Furthermore, this Convention displayed how issues surrounding abolition and slavery during the Age of Revolutions, such as the Haitian Revolution, were a prevalent force that could influence localities, like Tennessee, that were outside the traditional historiographical scope of the Atlantic World. 

Tennessee has been largely ignored in the examination of how the United States responded to and interacted with the Haitian Revolution. This is mainly due to the state’s isolation from the revolution because of its geographical distance and its preoccupation with the long and brutal war against the Cherokee people. Indeed, much of the writings of Tennessee politicians during the 1790s and the first decade of the nineteenth century were focused on recounting past violent acts and their own racism towards the Cherokee. However, the symbolism and potential influence of the destruction of slavery in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue and the creation of an independent Black nation of Haiti was not lost on Whites in Tennessee. In 1803, in perhaps the clearest reaction to the Haitian Revolution, the state assembly passed an act that made it illegal to discuss any current events or revolutionary topics near enslaved people over the fear it may “induce them to insurrection.”[2]

Beginning on May 19, 1834, county delegates met in Nashville, Tennessee to alter Tennessee’s 1796 constitution. The official impetus for this Constitutional Convention was to “remove special tax privileges enjoyed by the ‘lords of the soil’ and to reorganize representative government along more democratic lines.”[3] However, underneath the formal reasonings lay the issue of slavery and whether the representatives should consider arguments on gradual emancipation within the state. Nat Turner’s 1831 Rebellion highlighted to White Tennesseans the potential violence that could result from enslaving Black Tennesseans, and many feared that the Convention would have to decide on the state’s usage and viability of enslaved labor.[4] On May 26, John Neal, the delegate from McMinn County, submitted a petition from the citizens of his county to discuss emancipation within the state. This petition was quickly tabled, but dozens of other petitions related to emancipation were presented over the following days.

This growing debate and agitation surrounding slavery was amplified by politicians and citizens in East Tennessee publicly arguing that a measure on emancipation be adopted by the Convention. Eastern Tennessee was home to many Quakers, who had migrated from North Carolina due to the availability of land and the minimal presence of slavery during the end of the eighteenth century. This religious group provided the main organizational foundation for abolitionist groups and beliefs in Tennessee. In 1815, Quaker Charles Osbourne created the Tennessee Manumission Society, and by 1823 it had roughly six hundred members.[5] In the months prior to the State Convention, it was apparent to many that the delegates from eastern Tennessee would propose measures on emancipation. Two months before the Convention, state representative James Osburn wrote that “the East Tennesseans, at least some of them, the little brotherhood are about trying the experiment of a constitutional clause of the emancipation of the slaves.”[6]

On May 30, 1834, the representatives voted to address slavery in Tennessee and mandated that a committee of three members examine the issue of human bondage and its possible eradication in the state. On June 19, the committee presented an official report on slavery and the possibility of emancipation. Much of the report relies on racist arguments as to why slavery should not be abolished. It argued that bondage was an evil, but that enslaved people lived in a more fulfilling and caring environment than free Black Americans, who were subjected to continual poverty and vitriol from Whites. The committee’s report asserted that, if immediate or gradual emancipation was granted, it would destroy the “stable” life of enslaved people and throw hundreds of thousands of people into degradation, and that their large numbers would “have at their command a portion of physical strength that might and probably be wielded to the worst of purposes.”[7] The report posited that formerly enslaved people in the state would sympathize with the plight of those in bondage in bordering states of the Deep South and would “make a common cause” and together “exterminate the White man and take possession of the country.”[8]

The ending section of the committee’s report highlighted the significance of national and international acts of resistance towards slavery, and the need of those in power to keep the oppressive system of bondage in place in Tennessee. The report stressed the chaos and destruction of the Haitian Revolution by asking “Are the bloody scenes of St. Domingue forgotten; will not similar causes always produce similar effects; would not the same horrible tragedy be acted over again in our own country, at our firesides, and in our bed chambers?” Additionally, the committee referred to abolitionists in similar terms, remarking that they should “refrain from intermeddling in a matter, in which they have no concern, and in which their interference can do no possible good and may do much positive evil”[9] The report concluded by contending that slavery would one day end in the United States, and that any preemptive resistance or act to abolish it will only cause fear and violence to spread throughout the country. 

The only challenge made against the wording of the committee’s report was by Joseph Kincaid of Bedford County, who moved to eliminate the passage on the “degraded situation” of Black Americans who were not enslaved; but the motion was soundly defeated by a vote of 12 in favor and 42 against. There was no objection to the sections on the possibility of a rebellion resulting from emancipation, nor on the influence of the Haitian Revolution and abolitionists. A week after the report was presented to the Convention, four delegates from eastern counties submitted a benign protest of its findings. Read by Matthew Stephenson of Washington County, the protest used ethical and religious justification to show the immorality of the practice of slavery, but it did not address the imagery of resistance and violence that was suggested in the report.[10]

After Stephenson presented the report on slavery in Tennessee, the State Convention passed reactionary resolutions against free and enslaved Black Americans. On June 28, 1834, representative L. Marr of Obion County proposed a resolution that would strip free Black Tennesseans of citizenship and participation within the political system, which they were technically, but not practically, given in the 1796 constitution. William H. Loving of Haywood County argued that if Black citizens were allowed to vote it would set a deadly precedent—an example of freedom to the enslaved that would cause “the overthrow or total extinction of the White race, one instance of which is fresh in our memory-that of the ill-fated island of St. Domingo.”[11] After much debate, on July 31, the Convention decreed that only White men of the state had the freedom to vote. 

The representatives next passed an act that reworded the Second Amendment of the state constitution to specify that only “free White men of this State have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence.” Other states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, had already legally mandated that Black people could not own firearms after Nat Turner’s Rebellion, but Tennessee was the first state to enact the restriction on this famed amendment.[12] Finally, on a close vote of 30 for and 23 against, the Convention decreed “that the General Assembly shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves, without consent of their owner or owners,” ending any possibility that the state would act on or interfere in the system of human bondage.[13]

Examining the 1834 Tennessee Constitutional Convention gives a more detailed understanding of the influences of the Haitian Revolution on abolition, and how they could be weaponized by White enslavers against efforts for emancipation. The purpose of the paranoid and racist rhetoric within the report was not just to argue against the destruction of slavery but also to solidify it through new and even more draconian measures. All of this was to ensure that the White society of Tennessee, which rested on the unjust subjugation of and supremacy over enslaved people, was fully protected and secured. The passage of these stringent constitutional acts primarily occurred due to the fear and influence of external examples of resistance to bondage, in a state that has traditionally been overlooked in the examination of abolition and slavery in the Atlantic World. Despite the state’s relative isolation and distance from the greater Atlantic region, Tennessee politicians were still able to use external issues effectively surrounding abolition and slavery to their advantage. It is noteworthy that even those at the Convention who wanted emancipation did not call into question the arguments made on the Haitian Revolution and abolitionists, as they likely realized that no real attempt could be made against the ingrained fear on these prominent acts of resistance.


Seth Whitty is a PhD student at the University of Houston. He is currently working on his dissertation entitled “Slashed With All The Severity: Resistance and Oppression in Tennessee,” which examines how resistance to, and oppression from, human bondage in Tennessee was influenced by the news and ideas of actions taken against slavery throughout the Atlantic World.

Title Image: “Revenge Taken by the Black Army for the Cruelties practiced…by the French.”  An 1805 illustration in Marcus Rainsford’s An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (Photo: Library of Congress).

Further Reading: 

Clavin, Matthew J. Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 

Imes, William Lloyd. “The Legal Status of Free Negroes and Slaves in Tennessee.” The Journal of Negro History 4, no. 3 (1919): 254–72. 

Mooney, Chase C. “The Question of Slavery and the Free Negro in the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1834.” The Journal of Southern History 12, no. 4 (1946): 487–509.  

Rugemer, Edward Bartlett. The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008. 

Scott, Julius S. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. London and New York: Verso Books, 2018. 

Endnotes:

[1] Journal of the Convention of the State of Tennessee: Convened for the Purpose of Revising and Amending the Constitution Thereof. Held in Nashville. (Nashville: W.H. Hunt and co. Printers, 1834), 92 and 93. 

[2] Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, 1803, 44. In Arroyo, “Poor Whites, Slaves, and Free Blacks in Tennessee, 1796-1861,” Tennessee History: The Land, The People, and the Culture, edited by Carroll Van West (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1998), 107. 

[3] Lester C. Lamon, Blacks in Tennessee, 1791-1970 (Knoxville:, University of Tennessee Press, 1981), 13. 

[4] Ibid., 13 and 14. 

[5] Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), 175. 

[6] James Osburn to James K. Polk, March 23rd, 1834. Correspondence of James K. Polk: Volume II, 1833-1834, edited by Herbert Weaver, and Wayne Cutler (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969), 372. 

[7] Journal of the Convention of the State of Tennessee, 92.

[8] Ibid., 92.

[9] Ibid., 92 and 93. 

[10] Ibid., 98 and 108. 

[11] Nashville Republican and State Gazette, July 5, 1834 in Chase C. Mooney “The Question of Slavery and the Free Negro in the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1834.” The Journal of Southern History 12, no. 4 (1946): 505. 

[12] Ibid., 184. For states banning Black Americans from using firearms see The Nat Turner Project https://www.natturnerproject.org/laws-passed-march-15-1832.

[13] Ibid., 201. 

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