Teaching Slavery

A page from the 1838 Blatterman student notebook discussing the legal justifications for slavery.
G.W. Blatterman’s notes from John A.G. Davis’ 1838-1839 senior law class. Here, Professor John A.G. Davis discusses the recognition of slavery in Virginia state law despite William Blackstone’s adamant rejection of its legality in his Commentaries on the Laws of England. The page ends with a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s “wolf by the ear” analogy.

Notebooks kept by students enrolled at UVA Law make up the core of the Slavery and the University Virginia School of Law Project. Available here are digitized copies of student notebooks from UVA law courses before 1865. These student notes from faculty lectures are held at the UVA Law Library and offer glimpses of a legal curriculum that morphed over time according to the scholarly predilections of the Law School’s first faculty members and the broader national context of government and law. They also illustrate how Law School faculty and students brought the law to bear upon questions of property, contracts, and slavery.

Cover page from Stevenson Law Notes Book
John W. Stevenson’s notes on assault and burglary from John A.G. Davis’ 1832-1833 class. Stevenson included references from textbooks alongside each of the main lecture textual references to each of the main points he outlined.

Student notebooks vary from one student to the next, although the content for classes such as John Minor’s Senior Law course tends to be consistent across notebooks. In the classroom, antebellum Law student notebooks show the legal curriculum to be heavily based in legal theory. The content contains consistent references to legal theorists such as William Blackstone and Emer de Vattel, which appear in parentheses by specific phrases and sentences along with relevant page or section numbers. It is often unclear whether a student is copying lecture notes or course texts verbatim, or when they are offering their own commentary. There are intermittent mentions of the professor’s perspective (i.e., “According to Professor Minor…”), but these are exceptional. Some content crosses over into the margins, with citations found there and the observation/lesson in the main body. Past student exams are occasionally located towards the end of a notebook (copied by hand rather than inserted separately), which may represent a shared camaraderie amongst law students of different classes. Pagination was typically added later by a different party and stamped on one of the top corners.

Class notes are both individual and “human” in their nature. Doodles, poems, witty retorts, financial scribblings, and other unrelated content are typically found in the front and backmatter, although these remarks and sketches can appear throughout. Some students were highly organized in their notetaking, being sure to copy down each word verbatim. Others were less structured and, as a result, the content can be difficult to follow.

Moreover, students often dedicated one notebook to several courses or had multiple notebooks for one course. In the former case, course chronology sometimes alternates between law and another subject like chemistry. These transitions sometimes occur abruptly and without explanation. In other notebooks, one page might have law notes while the back of the same page is dedicated to a different course. Furthermore, notebooks were occasionally shared with other students in which case more than one name was appended to a single notebook. Navigating these complexities is a key component of utilizing student notebooks as a historical source.

Given the importance of property law to the curriculum, slavery and enslaved people were part of lectures on debt liability, inheritance, and general conceptions of American law by implication, if not always by direct reference. While there are glimmers of cultural and political references, they are not predominant. Very rarely was an entire lecture devoted to the topic of enslavement; rather, professors interspersed the laws of slavery as well as theoretical interpretations of slavery throughout discussions on the U.S. Constitution and property law.

These lectures center on the rights of property-holding white men and their relationship to slavery and the state. Thus, Law School teachings provided the legal justifications for slavery—one important tool in solidifying a slave society—to students whose whole University experience nonetheless supported white supremacy and slavery. 

Student Notebooks

The notebooks that follow represent Law Special Collections antebellum notebook holdings. Small Special Collections has a much larger selection in their various student notebook collections, but none are currently digitized.   

For research questions related to our student notebook holdings, please use the Contact Us Page

Image of an early page of Henshaw student notebook

John S. Henshaw, 1846-1847

John S. Henshaw’s 1846-1847 notes cover John Minor’s Junior Law course. Henshaw’s notebook is organized by date and title and blends lecture notes with textual references to theorists such as William Blackstone and Emer de Vattel. Henshaw references slavery throughout the notebook. His notes speak to various aspects of slavery, from the slave trade and corporeal punishment to general laws of enslavement in Virginia.

Image of an early page of Carrington student notebook

I. H. Carrington, 1846-1847

I.H. Carrington’s 1846-1847 lecture notes are from John Minor’s Senior Law course. At the time, classes were organized into “junior” and “senior,” the latter of which covered legal theorists such as Joseph Chitty and Henry St. George Tucker. Like other lectures from this period, the emphasis was on property and contracts, which necessitated a discussion of legal dependents such as enslaved persons, wives, and children. 

Image of an early page of Blatterman student notebook

G. W. Blatterman, 1838-1839

G.W. Blatterman’s 1838-1839 law notes are among the few extant records that document Professor John A.G. Davis’ lectures. According to the frontmatter, the notes were copied from law student Waverly Townes. The notes are organized by topic. In a lecture on slavery titled “Master v. Servant,” Davis established the legal definition of a “master” and then reviewed the kinds of servitude Blackstone defined in his Commentaries

Image of an early page of Hanger student notebook featuring large handwriting

James Marshall Hanger, 1853-1854

James Marshall Hanger’s 1853-1854 notes are from John Minor’s class. The frontmatter specifies that the notebook is devoted to William Blackstone specifically, a unique feature. Given the focus on Blackstone, Hanger’s notes contain many references to slavery including a discussion on the history of slavery in Virginia as well as federal laws relating to slavery such as the Three-fifths Compromise.

Image of an early page of Lake student notebook

George Lake, 1861-1862

George Lake’s 1861-1862 notes cover John Minor’s course on mercantile law and the law of contracts with an emphasis on the theories of John William Smith. While discussions of contracts focused on the rights of white men, this topic also required professor and pupil to recognize the contractual rights that legal dependents such as enslaved persons and wives lacked in relation to property holding males.

Image of an early page of Stevenson student notebook

John W. Stevenson, 1832-1833

John W. Stevenson’s 1832-1833 notes cover John A.G. Davis’ 1832-1833 course. The frontmatter specifies that the notebook is devoted to William Blackstone’s Commentaries, one of two in our collection with that focus. Blackstone’s understanding of slavery was a core feature of the law curriculum at UVA. His theories were frequently drawn upon by Law faculty such as Davis and later John B. Minor.

Image of an early page of Washington student notebook

Robert Washington, 1861

Robert Washington’s 1861 notebook is from John B. Minor’s Senior Law course. It is one of two student notebooks in our collection recorded during the Civil War. The notes cover debt liability, property, and contracts, which were common topics in Minor’s classes. Washington’s notes contain a section on the circumstances permitting chattel property, including enslaved persons, to be taken from a man to pay his debt.