Virginia’s Reluctant Secession

This is an article by William W. Freehling in Volume 5, Issue Number 4 (May, 2002) of North & South Magazine (pages 80-89) covering the results of his research into Virginia’s secession. Earlier that year, Professor Freehling gave a paper to the University of Richmond’s Douglas Southall Freeman and Southern Intellectual History Conferences titled, “Virginia’s (Reluctant) Decision to Secede: Slave or States Rights or ?” which may be essentially the same as this article. I haven’t seen a copy of that paper yet to confirm this.

Professor Freehling says the story of Virginia’s secession is “one of the richest epics in American history.” [p. 80] To gain that status, he says, a story needs four elements: “The story must be sweepingly important. It must star vivid actors. It must illuminate rich complexities. And it must convey stunning ironies that highlight erring humans’ capacity to achieve the reverse of what they intended.” [p. 80]

In the article, Professor Freehling says, “More than ever in 1860-61, the Slave South resembled a three step ladder, with lower percentages of slaves and less enthusiasm for disunion accompanying each step northward. Farthest South lay the Lower or Deep or Cotton South, with 46.5 percent of its population enslaved. These seven Lower South states all seceded between Abraham Lincoln’s election on November 6-7, 1860, and his inauguration as president on March 4, 1861. Above the Lower South sprawled the four Middle South states (including Virginia), with 31.7 percent of the population enslaved. Still higher lay the four states of the Border South, with only 12.7 percent of the population enslaved.” [p. 80] The Middle and Border South states formed the Upper South. “The Upper South,” we learn, “contained 41 percent of the South’s slaves, 61 percent of its population, 67 percent of its whites, and 81 percent of its factories.” [p.80] This tells us how important it was to Jefferson Davis to have the Upper South in the confederacy. In the article, Professor Freehling quotes historian James M. McPherson from the Pulitzer Prize winning synthesis, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. ” ‘If all eight states’ of the Upper South ‘had seceded, the South might well have won its independence. If all eight had remained in the Union, the Confederacy surely could not have survived as long as it did.’ ” [p. 80] We learn that Virginia was the biggest prize of the Upper South for Davis. Not only did it have more slaves and more people than the other Upper South states, but it also had Tredegar Iron Works, “one of the few southern factories capable of crafting heavy ordinance [sic].” [p. 80] As a bonus, Virginia also had Robert E. Lee, as well as a few other future confederate luminaries. Even more important to Professor Freehling, “Virginia mirrored both tiers of the Upper South. The state’s heavily slaveholding eastern side resembled most of the Middle South. In contrast, Virginia’s heavily nonslaveholding northwestern extremity, running up north to the Ohio and Pennsylvania border, resembled most of the Border South. If Virginians seceded en masse, the whole Upper South might exit the Union. Then Abraham Lincoln might face an unwinnable war. If all of Virginia instead rejected secession and the Upper South followed suit, Jefferson Davis could not wage war for long.” [p, 80]

Having established the importance of Virginia’s decision to secede, Professor Freehling moves to perhaps the star of the show, former governor Henry A. Wise, whom Professor Freehling calls “arguably the most important Virginia politician between the Washington-Jefferson-Madison era and Woodrow Wilson’s.” [p. 80] In response to the attack on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Immediately in the wake of the proclamation, the Virginia Secession convention still seemed indecisive. Into the fray leaped former governor Wise. “Henry Wise, Virginia’s best talker, became the man disgusted with too much democratic talk. The ex-governor unconstitutionally seized the sitting governor’s prerogatives. He illegally ordered state troops to capture federal army and naval installations. He thus shamed Virginia’s procrastinators into deciding which army to join.” [p. 80] You can see more of Professor Freehling’s writings on Henry Wise here. Professor Freehling describes the dramatic scene thus: “As the secessionist George Randolph saw Robert Scott [leader of those who favored delaying secession], ‘the gentleman proposes to get out’ not by seceding but ‘by getting the States, that everybody knows will not secede, to join with Virginia in a consultation.’ On April 17, a Virginia convention majority still almost approved Scott’s delay. Scott lost by only 79-64. A swing of eight votes would have given the delayer his triumph. At this climactic juncture, Henry Wise could abide procrastination no longer. A day earlier, on April 16, the ex-governor, despite lacking his old authority, had ordered state troops to seize the federal government’s army facility at Harpers Ferry and the naval installation at the Gosport Yards. Then on April 17, right after Robert Scott’s narrow loss and at the very moment the unauthorized seizures were occurring, Wise rose in the convention. He placed his huge horse pistol before him. He snapped open his pocket watch and announced in hushed tones that at this hour, by his command, Virginia was at war with the federal government. If anyone wished to shoot him for treason, they would have to wrestle away his pistol. Ten feet in front of Wise, ex-President John Tyler turned his chair around, tears streaming down his worn face, to cheer as the spellbinder ripped into the stalling Unionists. To an eyewitness, Wise seemed ‘supernaturally excited. His features were as sharp and rigid as bronze. His hair stood off from his head, as if charged with electricity.’ Why can’t you realize, he shouted as his foes, now as ‘white and pale as the wall,’ that Lincoln’s bloodthirsty proclamation makes waverers into traitors? The tyrant’s troops now menace your folks. You must now decide whether to kill your kin. You must decide whether to return the murder weapons that I have ordered Virginia’s patriots to seize. You must now decide whether to secede from the despot or assassinate me.” [p. 87]

Professor Freehling now comes to the third element, the complexity of the situation. He tells us, “If Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 had posed a simple choice–leave the Union or lose your slaves–no ex-governor would have needed to seize forts or naval yards illegally to push indecisive slaveholders off the fence. But Lincoln’s immediate menace remained too debatable for Virginians to storm out of the Union swiftly or easily or unanimously. In Virginia, as throughout the South before the Civil War cannons roared, debate centered on whether Lincoln’s immediate threat to slavery demanded the huge gamble of disunion before the new president could do anything threatening. Southern Unionists saw insufficient reason for secessionists’ risky preemptive strike. These cautious Southerners would wait and see if the president menaced slavery. If he menaced, then they would secede.” [pp. 80-82] Most southerners adopted a wait-and-see attitude. As Professor Freehling writes, “Before the war began, after all, secession was a landslide loser in the Border South, a 2:1 loser in the Middle South, and barely a winner in several Lower South states.” [p. 82] Delayers pointed to the fact that the Democrats wold control both Congress and the Supreme Court and that Lincoln had promised only to cut off slavery’s expansion into the territories. In 1864, they would have the opportunity to defeat Lincoln at the polls. Disunionists countered by pointing out Lincoln could use the patronage to appoint antislavery men in the Upper South. “Within twenty-five years, they predicted, the Border South, then the Middle South, would become nonslaveholding areas. Thereafter, a progressively swelling majority of nonslaveholding states would force slavery’s removal from the Lower South. Disunionists would not passively wait while slavery sank to the bottom of the Union and the Lower South stood shiveringly alone against the process Lincoln had begun in 1860-61.” [p. 82]

The Lower South states sent commissioners to the Upper South to urge secession. The commissioners to Virginia appeared at the Virginia secession convention. “The secessionist convention delegates, coming largely from heavily slaveholding areas of eastern Virginia, developed a version of the immediate menace argument that rivaled anything their good friends from the Lower South had to say. Virginia secessionists reiterated that Lincoln needed no new congressional acts or new Supreme Court decisions to begin pushing slavery down the road toward ultimate extinction. Lincoln could appoint customs collectors, post office workers, and other federal officials to positions inside Virginia. Lincoln’s appointments, warned Jeremiah Morton in the Virginia convention, would soon place ‘Black Republicans upon every stump, and organizing in every county, and that is the peace that we shall have from this ‘glorious union.’ ‘ A Black Republican Party inside the South, continued the Virginia secessionist delegates, would accelerate an ongoing antislavery process up north in Dixie, including up north in Virginia. ‘Delaware,’ noted Professor James Holcombe of the University of Virginia, ‘is nominally only, a slave State. Maryland will soon be a free State; and so it is with Missouri and Kentucky.’ And so it is with northwestern Virginia, added Alpheus F. Haymond, ‘almost entirely depopulated of its slaves, by the influence of Abolitionism.’ After pressing slavery out of northernmost Virginia, warned George W. Richardson, nothing could stop Black Republicans ‘from pressing’ slavery ‘from the counties which come next in order.’ Eventually, Lincoln’s party would sweep slavery down ‘through Virginia, through the Confederate States, and into the far South.’ As Henry Wise summed up the supposed immediate menace, slavery’s ‘tenure in Virginia is doubtful’–too doubtful for us to allow Lincoln’s appointees to rally the lukewarm.” [pp. 82-83]

On April 9, 1861, secession in Virginia went down to a 90-45 defeat. Three days later, the confederates fired on Fort Sumter. Three days after that, President Lincoln issued his call for troops. “The formerly uncertain danger to slavery now seemed graver. Most Virginians had wished to wait and see if Lincoln’s peaceful rule over the old Union of eighteen free labor and fifteen slave labor states would menace slavery. But after a potentially antislavery president declared war against the seven Lower South states, potential perils multiplied for slaveholders in but eight Upper South states, if they remained in an alliance with over two times more free soil states. A new alleged menace to state rights as well as the greater potential menace to slavery hurried many former Unionists toward disunion.” [p. 83]

Professor Freehling next considers the state rights argument. “Posterity thinks of state rights as the right of state governmental power to check federal governmental power, in a two government system. When neo-Confederates now claim that state rights impelled secession, they usually mean that disunionists wished to preclude Lincoln from boosting federal governmental power at the expense of state governmental power inside the Union. According to this interpretation, long popular in southern precincts, secessionists acted not to save slavery but to save state rights from Lincoln’s expansive federal legislation, including high protective tariffs, internal improvements, and national banks. Charles Dew describes his shock, as a native Southerner who relished his southern education, to find in the Lower South commissioners’ documents almost nothing about fighting tariffs et al and almost everything about fighting to preserve slavery. Any Southerner who investigates the prewar Virginia secession documents, expecting to find fury about an expansive federal government’s potential economic imperialism, will be equally shocked. Instead, the slavery issue provoked almost all Virginia disunionists’ outrage. So too, western Virginians’ potentially confiscatory taxes on slaves inspired a dozen times more anxiety than the federal government’s potentially prohibitive tariffs on imports.” [p. 84]

We turn next to the relationship between slavery and state rights as it pertains to secession. “Indeed, prewar Southerners’ master mission, to preserve slavery inside a dual system of federal and state governance, dictated crusades to expand federal power and to limit state rights. The fugitive slave issue of the 1850s especially shoved Southerners to the supposedly wrong end of the federal power/state rights spectrum. After Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, several northern states passed so-called Personal Liberty Laws. In these laws, a state’s legislature empowered the state’s courts to stop the federal government’s agents from removing alleged black runaways, if the federal intrusion violated the state’s right to try the accused and to protect the defendant’s rights. … To secure a Union-saving reconstruction in 1860-61, Virginians sought further expansion of the federal government’s power to reach inside northern states for fugitive slaves. The reconstructionists also sought to contract any supposed state rights to resist the federal intrusion. But after Lincoln’s proclamation of April 15, state rights became not a northern weapon to protect slaves fleeing from their masters but a southern tactic to safeguard slaveholders fleeing from the Union. State rights now meant not a limitation of one government at the expense of the other, inside a Union of both, but a prohibition of every speck of federal governmental power, after the people of a state no longer consented to federal governance.” [pp. 84-85]

Another powerful motive for Virginians was the choice they had to make. “Once Virginians at last realized that they lay trapped in unstoppable crossfire between Confederate and Federal riflemen, they only could choose which infantry to join. For most of them, it was no contest. Secessionists were erring brothers. Yankees were despicable insulters. The North’s provoking critics, not the South’s provoked defenders, most deserved a fist in the mouth or a bayonet in the gut or a bullet in the brain. This intensely emotional, highly fraternal, and ultimately controlling sense of menace to kin saturates the sources. ‘If we are to be dragged … either to the North or to the South,’ John Randolph Chambliss asked fellow Virginia convention delegates, ‘then in the name of our ancient fame, by whom would we prefer to be dragged? Would you be dragged by the Northern confederacy, your known haters or enemies–or would you prefer to be dragged by your brethren of kindred ties and similar interests?’ … ‘I had rather be under King Cotton than under King Abolition. I had rather be ruled by King Davis than by Autocrat Lincoln.’ War is the ultimate We versus They, and Virginians had been schooled that We equaled southern defenders, They equaled Yankee defamers, throughout thirty years of verbal warfare over slavery.” [p. 85]

All that is left now is to consider the fourth element, the stunning irony. “Ironically, the Upper South in general and Virginia in particular, having rejected secession in the prewar period, became the primary battleground for the Lower South’s war. Still more ironically, the prewar eastern Virginians, having trembled at western Virginia nonslaveholders’ antislavery threat, made that threat killing by seeking to drag those opponents out of their beloved Union. Most ironically of all, the secessionists, having spied Lincoln’s possible menace, made that menace almost instantaneous, just as Unionists had predicted, by trading a slavery-protecting Union for a potentially abolitionizing civil war.” [p. 88] What I see as even more ironic is that absent secession and the war, Abraham Lincoln had no power to do anything to slavery, and Congress could pass no antislavery legislation. Secession gave Republicans control of Congress and the power to pass antislavery legislation such as the Confiscation Acts, the ending of slavery in the District of Columbia, the banning of slavery in territories and on Federal installations, the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the passing of an article of war prohibiting the military from returning runaway slaves. The war gave Abraham Lincoln the power to free slaves by using his war powers. Secession and the war produced the very thing the secessionists sought to prevent.

As we see in this article, the protection of slavery was the primary factor in making Virginia’s secession possible, as we also discussed here.


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