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Dew was born in King and Queen County, Virginia in 1802, son of Captain Thomas Dew and Lucy Gatewood Dew. His father was a Revolutionary War soldier and founder of Dewsville, a prosperous plantation near Newtown, King and Queen County.
Dew attended The College of William & Mary, graduating in 1820. He was professor of history, metaphysics, and political economy at William & Mary from 1827 to 1836 and served as president from 1836 until his death.
In 1832 he published a review of the celebrated slavery debate of 1831–32 in the Virginia General Assembly, A Review of the Debates in the Legislature of 1831 and 1832, which went far towards putting a stop to a movement, then assuming considerable proportions, to proclaim the end of slavery in Virginia. The Virginia legislature's debate was a response to Nat Turner's slave rebellion of August 1831. While Dew's position was convincing to many southern readers, Jesse Burton Harrison of Lynchburg, Virginia, wrote a robust response that argued that colonization was possible and that slavery was economically inefficient. Dew's largest work was Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners, and Institutions of Ancient and Modern Nations (1853). It drew in some ways on works like P. Austin Nuttall's A classical and archaeological dictionary of the manners, customs, laws, institutions, arts, etc. of the celebrated nations of antiquity, and of the middle ages
Dew was well respected in the South; his widely distributed writings helped to confirm pro-slavery public opinion. His work has been compared to that of the southern surgeon and medical authority Samuel A. Cartwright, who defended slavery and advocated the beating of slaves who absconded from their duties or became idle. He co-authored The Pro-Slavery Argument with Harper, Hammond and Simms.
He described the hardships faced by men in the marketplace and the almost brutal strength needed to survive in such a competitive atmosphere. He stated courage and boldness are man's attributes. Dew also described women as passive (not active), emblematic of divinity, dependent and weak, but a spring of irresistible power. His family papers and papers from his time as president of the College of William and Mary can be found at the Special Collections Research Center at the College of William and Mary.
Professor Thomas R. Dew, of William and Mary College, based a long argument on the proposition that "slaves are entirely unfit for a state of freedom among the whites."