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"Professor Hedrick's Defence"

Benjamin S. Hedrick

Benjamin S. Hedrick, undated. 

 Image from North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.


Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick was born 13 February 1827 in Davidson County near Salisbury. He attended the University of North Carolina and graduated in 1851 with "first honor in the senior class." On the recommendation of President Swain, he acquired a clerkship in the office of the Nautical Almanac in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While there, Hedrick took advanced courses at Harvard with Louis Agassiz and other notable scientists. He returned to his alma mater in January 1854 to become professor of analytical and agricultural chemistry, passing up a job offer from Davidson College.

Despite his scientific credentials, Benjamin S. Hedrick's reputation is based largely on the fact that he was dismissed from the university in 1856 for publicly expressing his views on slavery. It all began when, leaving the polls at the state election in August, he met several students who questioned him about the upcoming presidential election. "One asked whether if there were a Fremont ticket [Hedrick] would support it." Hedrick said he would. Another asked "whether in case the South were attacked by [the] North" he would support the North. Hedrick said no (quotations from University Papers #40005).

Rumors began to circulate that Hedrick's opinions were more radical than they really were. Several weeks later an article entitled "Fremont in the South" appeared in The North Carolina Standard advocating the ouster of those with "black Republican opinions" from the colleges and seminaries of the state. Soon after that a letter with a similar bent appeared, signed by "An Alumnus." Hedrick, whom Swain described as having "the courage of a lion and the obstinacy of a mule," could not resist answering the charges against him.

"Professor Hedrick's Defence." 4 October 1856. The North Carolina Standard.

"I cannot believe that slavery is preferable to freedom, or that slavery extension is one of the constitutional rights of the South."

4 October 1856. The North Carolina Standard. (Transcript)


For the Standard.

Professor Hedrick’s Defence.

MESSRS. Editors : In the last “Standard,” I see a communication, signed “Alumnus.” Although my name is not mentioned therein, still I suppose there is little doubt that it was all intended for me. Now, politics, not being my trade, I feel some hesitation in appearing before the public, especially at a time like this, when there seems to be a great desire on the part of those who give direction to public opinion to stir up strife and hatred, than to cultivate feelings of respect and kindness. But, lest my silence might be misinterpreted, I will reply, as briefly as possible, to this, as it appears to me, uncalled for attack on my politics.

                Then, to make the matter short, I say I am in favor of the election of Fremont to the Presidency; and these are my reasons for my preference :

                1st. Because I like the man. He was born and educated at the South. He has lived at the North and the West, and therefore has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with our whole people,— an advantage not possessed by his competitors. He is known and honored both at home and abroad. He has shown his love of his country by unwavering devotion to its interests. And whether teaching school for the support of his widowed mother, or exploring the wilds of the great West; whether enlarging the boundaries of science or acquiring for our country the “golden State;” whether establishing a constitution for this youngest daughter of the Union, or occupying a seat in the Senate of the nation,— in every position; and under all circumstances,—whether demanding heroic daring or prudent council, he has always possessed the courage to undertake, and the wisdom to carry through. In reference to the value of his services in Californ[i]a, Mr. Buchanan says, “he bore conspicuous part in the conquest of California, and in my opinion is better entitled to be called the conquerer of California than any other man.” For such services and such ability, I love to do him honor. “Platforms” and principles are good enough in their places; but for the Presidential chair, the first requisite is a man.

2d. Because Fremont is on the right side of the great question which now disturbs the public peace. Opposition to slavery extension is neither a Northern nor a sectional  ism. It originated with the great Southern statesmen of the Revolution. Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, and Randolph were all opposed to slavery in the abstract, and were all opposed to admitting it into new territory. One of the early acts of the patriots of the Revolution was to pass the ordinance of “87,” by which slavery was excluded from all the territories we then possessed. This was going farther than the Republicans of the present day claim. Many of these great men were slaveholders; but they did not let self interest blind the[m] to the evils of the system. Jefferson says that slavery exerts an evil influence both upon the whites and the blacks; but he was opposed to the abolition policy, by which the slaves would be turned loose among the whites. In his autobiography, he says: “nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain than the two races, equally free, can not live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion, have drawn indelible lines between them.” Among the evils which he says slavery bring upon the whites, is to make them tyranical and idle. “With the morals of the people their industry is also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labor for himself, who can make another labor for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion, indeed, are ever seen to labor.” What was true in Jefferson’s time is true now. I might go on and give “Alumnus” every week from now till the election, a column of good “black Republican” documents, all written by the most eminent Southern statesmen, beginning with Washington, and including nearly all of the eminence for ability, virtue, and patriotism, and coming down to our own times. No longer ago than 1850, Henry Clay declared in the Senate—“I never can, and never will vote, and no earthly power ever will make me vote to spread slavery over territory where it does not exist.” At the same time that Clay was opposed to slavery, he was, like Fremont, opposed to the least interference by the general government, with slavery in the States where it exists. Should there be any interference with subjects belonging to the State policy, either by other States or by the federal government, no one will be more ready than myself, to defend the “good old North,” my native State. But, with Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Henry, Randolph, Clay, and Webster for political teachers, I cannot believe that slavery is preferable to freedom, or that slavery extension is one of the constitutional rights of the South. If “Alumnus” thinks that Calhoun, or any other, was a wiser statesman or better Southerner than either Washington or Jefferson, he is welcome to his opinion. I shall not attempt to abridge his liberty in the least. But my own opinions I will have, whether he is willing to grant me that right of every freeman, or not. I believe that I have had quite as good an opportunity as he has to form an opinion on the questions now to be settled. And when “Alumnus” talks of “driving me out” for sentiments once held by these great men, I cannot help thinking that he is becoming rather fanatical.

                For the information of “Alumnus,” I will state that he has put himself to unnecessary trouble in blazoning this matter before the public. The whole subject belongs exclusively to the jurisdiction of the Trustees of the University. They are men of integrity and influence, and have at heart the best interests of the University. There is no difficulty in bringing this, or any other question relating to the Faculty or students, before them. “Alumnus” has also made another mistake, in supposing that the Faculty take upon themselves to influence the political opinions of students. The students come to college generally, with their party politics already fixed; and it is exceedingly rare for them to change while here. It has, however, been often remarked that a very violent partizan at college, is pretty sure to “turn over” before he has left college long. I have been connected with our University, as student and Professor, for six years, and am free to say, that I know of no institution, North or South, from which partizan politics and sectarian religion are so entirely excluded. And yet we are too often attacked by the bigots of both. For my own part, I do not know the politics of more than one in a hundred of the students, except as I might infer to which party they belong, from a knowledge of the politics of their fathers. And they would not have known my own predilections in the present contest, had not one of their number asked me which of the candidates I preferred.

                But, if “Alumnus” would understand the state of things here correctly, he had better make a visit to the University. He was find each member of the Faculty busy teaching in his own department, whether of science or literature; and that party politics is one of the branches which we leave the student to study at some other place and time. If “Alumnus” does conclude to visit us, there is another matter to which I might direct his attention. The two societies here, to the one or the other of which all the students belong, have each a very good library, and in those libraries are to be found the “complete works” of many of our great statesmen. Now, for fear that the minds of the students may be “poisoned” by reading some of these staunch old patriots, would it not be well for “Alumnus” to exert himself, through the Legislature or otherwise, to “drive” them out of the libraries? It is true the works of Calhoun are in the same case with those of Jefferson; but from appearances, the Virginian seems to be read pretty often, whilst the South-Carolinian maintains a posture of “masterly inactivity.” When I was a student in college, a few years ago, the young politicians used to debate in the “Halls” of the societies, the same questions which the old politicians were debating in the Halls of Congress. The side which opposed slavery in the abstract, generally had the books in their favor, and as the records of the societies will show, they had quite often “the best of the argument.” So that when Col. Fremont said that he was “opposed to slavery in the abstract, and upon principle, sustained and made habitual by long settled convictions,” he but uttered the sentiments of four-fifths of the best Southern patriots from the Revolution down to the present day; and I may add, of the majority of the people among whom I was born and educated. Of my neighbors, friends, and kindred, nearly one-half have left the State since I was old enough to remember. Many is the time I have stood by the loaded emigrant wagon, and given the parting hand to those whose face I was never to look upon again. They were going to seek homes in the free West, knowing, as they did, that free and slave labor could not both exist and prosper in the same community. If any one thinks that I speak without knowledge, let him referred to the last census. He will there find, that in 1850, there were fifty-eight thousand native North Carolinians living in the free States of the West.—Thirty-three thousand in Indiana alone. There were, at the same time, one hundred and eighty thousand Virginians living in the free States. Now, if these people were so much in love with the “institution,” why did they not remain where they could enjoy its blessings?

                It is not, however, my object to attack the institution of slavery. But even the most zealous defender of the patriarchial institution cannot shut his eyes against a few prominent facts. One is, that in nearly all the slave States, there is a deficiency of labor. Since the abolition of the African slave trade there is no source of obtaining a supply, except from the natural increase. For this reason, among others, a gentleman of South Carolina, in an article published in DeBow’s Review for August, 1856, advocates a dissolution of the Union in order that the African slave trade may be revived. From North Carolina and Virginia nearly the entire increase of the slave population, during the last twenty years, has been sent off to the new States of the Southwest. In my boyhood I lived on one of the great thoroughfares of travel, (near Lock’s Bridge on that Yadkin River) and have seen as many as two thousand in a single day, going South, mostly in the hands of speculators. Now, the loss of these two thousand did the State a greater injury than would the shipping off of a million of dollars. I think I may ask any sensible man how we are to grow rich and prosper, while “driving out” a million of dollars per day. I am glad, however, to say that the ruinous policy is not now carried on to such an extent as it has been. But there is still too much of it. I have very little doubt that if [t]he slaves which are now scattered thinly over Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, where back in Virginia and North Carolina, it would be better for all concerned. These old States could then go on and develop the immense wealth which must remain locked up for many years to come. Whilst the new States, free from a system which degrades white labor, would become a land of Common Schools, thrift and industry, equal if not superior to any in the Union. But letting that be as it may, still no one can deny that here in North Carolina we need more men, rather than more land. Then why go to war to make more slave States, when we have too much territory already, for the force we have to work it? Our fathers fought for freedom, and one of the tyrannical acts which they threw in the teeth of Great Britain was that she forced slavery upon the Colonies against their will. Now, the secessionists are trying to dissolve the Union because they are not permitted to establish slavery in the Territory of Kansas. If the institution of slavery is the thing good and desirable in itself, it is the easiest thing in the world for the people to vote for its introduction at any time after they have formed a Constitutiou and been admitted as a State. If it is not a thing good and desirable, it would be an act of great oppression to force it upon them. For, however any one may lament the evils of slavery, it is almost impossible to get rid of the system when once introduced. Nullify it by law if you will, still the evil remains, perhaps aggravated. But in a new State a few words in the Constitution may prevent the entire evil from entering.

                 From my knowledge of the people of North Carolina, I believe that the majority of them who will go to Kansas during the next five years, would prefer that it should be a free State. I am sure that if I were to go there I should vote to exclude slavery. In doing so I believe that I should advance the best interest of Kansas, and at the same time benefit North Carolina and Virginia, by preventing the carrying away of slaves who may be more profitably employed at home.

                Born in the “good old North State,” I cherish a love for her and her people that I bear to no other State or people. It will ever be my sincere wish to advance her interests. I love also the Union of the States, secured as it was by the blood and toil of my ancestors; and whatever influence I possess, though small it may be, shall be exerted for its preservation. I do not claim infallibility for my opinions. Wiser and better men have been mistaken. But holding as I do the d[o]ctrines once advocated by Washington and Jefferson, I think I should be met by argument and not by denunciation. At any rate, those who prefer to denounce me should at least support their charges by their own name.

                                                                B. S. HEDRICK.

Chapel Hill, October 1st, 1856.


Source:  4 October 1856. "Professor Hedrick's Defence." The North Carolina Standard. North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Film CO71 S78.]

6 October 1856. Proceedings of the Faculty.

[Source Description: 6 October 1856. Proceedings of the Faculty. Records of the General Faculty and Faculty Council (#40106), University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

From Records of the General Faculty and Faculty Council #40106 (connect to finding aid).

6 October 1856. Proceedings of the faculty regarding Hedrick's actions.


Monday October 6th 1856

The Faculty met under a summons from the President at 12 o'clock A.M.

All the members were present.

The President stated to the Faculty, that in accordance with the course which he deemed his duty to pursue, with reference to to [sic] the selection of a chaplain, to deliver the valedictory sermon to the Senior Class at the last commencement, he felt himself called upon to direct their attention to the publication of Professor Hedrick in the North Carolina Standard of Saturday. Very few remarks in addition to those submitted to the Senior Class on that occasion, will suffice in relation to the present subject.

In an institution sustained like this by all denominations and parties, nothing should be permitted to be done, calculated to disturb the harmonious intercourse of those who support, and those who direct and govern it. Mr. Hedrick's testimony, as student and Professor, that he "know of no institution North or South, from which partisan politics and sectarian religion are so carefully excluded," will be received with perfect credence by our graduates, and by all familiar with the state of things among us.

To secure an end so essential to the reputation, prosperity, and usefulness of the University, cautious forbearance has been practised [sic] by the Faculty and enjoined upon the students in relation to these subjects. The sermons, delivered on the Sabbath in the college chapel, have been confined to an exhibition of the leading doctrines of Christianity, with respect to which, no difference of opinion exists among us, and no student during the last twenty years, has been permitted

6 October 1856. Proceedings of the Faculty.

[Source Description: 6 October 1856. Proceedings of the Faculty. Records of the General Faculty and Faculty Council (#40106), University Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

From University Papers #40005 (connect to finding aid).

6 October 1856. Benjamin S. Hedrick to Governor Bragg. Hedrick explains why he published the letter in the Standard.

14 October 1856. Benjamin S. Hedrick to Charles Manly. Both the faculty and the trustees voted to dismiss Hedrick. The reason they cited was that he had violated the "usages" of the faculty by engaging in partisan politics. In this letter to Charles Manly, which Hedrick wrote before the final decision, he argues "there are instances when . . . the usage may be disregarded." He notes that "about eight years ago one of the ablest and most learned professors in the university thought it incumbent on himself to define his position on the slavery question." He is referring here to Elisha Mitchell's The Other Leaf of Nature and the Word of God.

28 October 1856. Benjamin S. Hedrick to Charles Manly. Hedrick thanks Manly for making "the blow fall as lightly as you could."


12 November 1856. The Hillsborough Recorder.

Announcement of the dismissal of Professor Hedrick for engaging in political conflicts. VC071 H65.