Robert E. Lee remarked that slavery in the South was an evil and would be better solved by time and benevolent Christian influence, and the story of Reverend Chavis related below was a manifestation of that view. Chavis’s experience taught him that emancipation of the African race in his land must be preceded by education; Lincoln’s violent revolution that set black against white was the very opposite of his understanding of racial harmony.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Reverend Chavis’ View of Emancipation
“John Chavis [1763-1838], a free Negro of unmixed blood, preacher and educator, was born near Oxford in the County of Granville, North Carolina. As a free man he was sent to Princeton to study, privately under President Witherspoon of the College of New Jersey — “according to tradition, to demonstrate whether or not a Negro had the capacity to take a college education.”
That the test was successful appears from the record in the manuscript Order Book of Rockbridge County, Virginia, Court of 1802, which certifies to the freedom and character of Reverend John Chavis, a black man, who, as a student at Washington Academy passed successfully “through a regular course of Academical Studies.”
Through the influence of the Reverend Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian divine, Chavis became connected as a licentiate with the Presbyteries of Lexington and Hanover, Virginia. About 1805 he went to North Carolina, where he joined in 1809 the Orange Presbytery, and ministered to whites and blacks in various churches in at least three counties.
He was distinguished for his dignity of manner, purity of diction, and simplicity and orthodoxy in teaching. Familiar with Latin and Greek, he established a classical school, teaching sometimes at night, and prepared for college the sons of prominent whites in several counties, sometimes even boarding them in his family. Among them were Senator Willie P. Mangum, Governor Manly, the sons of Chief Justice Henderson. And others, who became lawyers, doctors, teachers, preachers and politicians. He was respectfully received in the families of his former pupils, whom he visited often.
The letters of Chavis to Senator Mangum show that the Senator treated him as a friend. Curiously, one dated in 1836, was a vigorous protest against the Petition for Emancipation, sent to Congress by the abolitionists, as injurious to the colored race:
April 4, 1836
“I am radically and heartily opposed to the passing of such a Law, a Law which will be fraught with so many mischievous and dangerous consequences. I am already of the opinion that Congress has no more right to pass such a Law than I have to go to your house and take Orange [a slave] and bring him home and keep him as my servant . . . I am clearly of the opinion that immediate emancipation would be to entail the greatest earthly curse upon my brethren according to the flesh that could be conferred upon them especially in a country like ours . . . I believe that there are a part of the abolitionists that have, and do, acting from pure motives but I think they have zeal without knowledge, and are doing more mischief than they expect. There is I think another part that are seeking for loaves and fishes and are an exceedingly dangerous set.”
Chavis died in 1838, aged about seventy-five, a conspicuous example of merit rewarded by slave-holding whites.”
(Universal Education in the South, Volume I, Charles William Dabney, UNC Press, 1936, excerpt, pp. 453-454)