Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Showdown in Virginia

Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union

William W. Freehling
Craig M. Simpson
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Showdown in Virginia
    Book Description:

    In the spring of 1861, Virginians confronted destiny-their own and their nation's. Pivotal decisions awaited about secession, the consequences of which would unfold for a hundred years and more. But few Virginians wanted to decide at all. Instead, they talked, almost interminably. The remarkable record of the Virginia State Convention, edited in a fine modern version in 1965, runs to almost 3,000 pages, some 1.3 million words. Through the diligent efforts of William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, this daunting record has now been made accessible to teachers, students, and general readers. With important contextual contributions-an introduction and commentary, chronology, headnotes, and suggestions for further reading-the essential core of the speeches, and what they signified, is now within reach.

    This is a collection of speeches by men for whom everything was at risk. Some saw independence and even war as glory; others predicted ruin and devastation. They all offered commentary of lasting interest to anyone concerned about the fate of democracy in crisis.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2991-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xx)

    The Old South’s 1860–61 disunion crisis transpired in dissimilar Lower South and Upper South phases. Each phase featured a searching debate in a key locale. The earlier verbal spectacle, in the Lower South, occurred in Georgia’s antebellum state capital, Milledgeville, shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election.¹ The subsequent oratorical showdown, in the Upper South, commenced in Virginia’s capital, Richmond, shortly after the last Lower South state left the Union.

    1 During the three months following Abraham Lincoln’s November 6, 1860, popular election to the presidency, disunionists triumphed in the Lower South’s seven states. They then faltered in the Upper...

  4. Editorial Procedures
    (pp. xxi-xxiii)
  5. Chronology
    (pp. xxiv-xxvi)
  6. Map of Virginia in 1861
    (pp. xxvii-xxx)
  7. Part I Secession Debated

    • 1 Jeremiah Morton’s Secessionist Speech, February 28
      (pp. 3-10)

      Jeremiah Morton, representing Orange and Greene counties in the western Piedmont (together 49.8 percent enslaved), was a convention exception in many ways. Most of Virginia’s leading secessionists had been Democrats, and most Unionists had been Whigs. Morton was the anomalous former Whig who was a prominent disunionist. Most convention speakers were in their forties. Jeremiah Morton was sixty-one. Almost all the other speakers, lawyers by trade, owned only a few nonplantation slaves. Morton’s several large plantations netted him a then-princely $30,000 per year. Few other speakers had held higher office than a seat in Virginia’s lower house. Morton had been...

    • 2 Waitman Willey’s Unionist Speech, March 4
      (pp. 11-21)

      On March 4, Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration Day, Waitman Thomas Willey delivered the first sustained answer to Jeremiah Morton. Willey, forty-nine years old in 1861, represented Monongalia County (in extreme northwestern Virginia, on the western edge of Pennsylvania, and 0.8 percent enslaved). He was born in a log cabin and educated at Madison College in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Upon recrossing the North-South border, Willey soared in Virginia politics. A member of the state’s lower house at age twenty-one, he advanced to the upper house at twenty-eight and vaulted to second place on the Oppositionist (former Whig) state ticket in 1859, losing the...

    • 3 John Carlile’s Unionist Speech, March 7
      (pp. 22-30)

      Three days after Willey blasted secessionists, his western Virginia colleague John S. Carlile, representing the Trans-Allegheny’s Harrison County (4.2 percent enslaved), raised similar alarms. Carlile, age forty-three and thus six years younger than Willey, had had an even more successful preconvention career: the same early service in the state senate but then elevation to the U.S. House of Representatives. Carlile, however, would have a less successful postconvention career: elected to the U.S. Senate from the new state of West Virginia with Willey but rejected for reelection.¹

      Mr. President, in this the hour of your country’s greatest peril, . . ....

    • 4 George Brent’s Unionist Speech, March 8
      (pp. 31-42)

      A day after Carlile echoed Willey’s northwestern themes, George William Brent demonstrated that an easterner could deliver an even more potent Unionist message. Brent, representing the Tidewater’s Alexandria City (11 percent enslaved), would never win office after the convention. Previously, he had been only an obscure state senator. But in a convention so often dominated by middle-class, middle-aged, previously uncelebrated men, this thirty-nine-year-old city lawyer and petty slaveholder was an oratorical force.¹

      Events . . . during the past twelve months in the politics of Europe and of our own country . . . awaken . . . the reflection...

    • 5 George Summers’s Unionist Speech, March 12
      (pp. 43-48)

      George William Summers represented Kanawha County, one of the more enslaved Trans-Allegheny counties, despite its modest 13.5 slave percentage. Older than most delegates at age fifty-seven, he was also more politically experienced than most. He had served as a state legislator, a U.S. congressman, a state judge, and a member of the recent Washington Peace Conference. He was widely expected, in and out of Virginia, to be the convention’s pivotal Unionist. Secessionists such as Henry Wise thus picked him out as the target for angry tirades. But Summers was a fading star, speaking less successfully at the convention than the...

    • 6 George Wythe Randolph’s Secessionist Speech, March 16
      (pp. 49-61)

      George Wythe Randolph was as close as they came at the Virginia convention to possessing royal blood. This representative of the Tidewater’s Richmond City (30.9 percent enslaved) was born and would be buried at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, as befit the former president’s youngest grandson. Forty-two years old in 1860, Randolph, a prominent Richmond attorney, would briefly become Jefferson Davis’s Confederate secretary of war.

      His eldest brother, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, had ruined a promising career by proposing gradual emancipation at the Virginia legislature’s famous antislavery debate in 1832. He thereby publicly risked some of Thomas Jefferson’s private heresies. The younger Randolph...

    • 7 James Holcombe’s Secessionist Speech, March 20
      (pp. 62-74)

      Professor James Philemon Holcombe, representing the western Piedmont’s Albemarle County (52.3 percent enslaved), reversed George Wythe Randolph’s relationship with that celebrated county, site of Monticello, Charlottesville, and the University of Virginia. Randolph, born at Monticello, perhaps had imbibed Grandfather Jefferson’s misgivings about slavery and had moved outside, to Richmond. Holcombe, educated outside (at Yale College), had repudiated his emancipating parents’ antislavery convictions and had moved inside to Charlottesville, to teach law at the University of Virginia. Although only forty years old in 1861, the prolific Holcombe had already written many legal textbooks. His professorial fame and his secessionist zeal made...

    • 8 John Baldwin’s Unionist Speech, March 21–23
      (pp. 75-88)

      These pages may lift John Brown Baldwin from obscurity. The Staunton resident, aged forty in 1861, represented the Valley’s Augusta County (20.2 percent enslaved). Baldwin never achieved higher office than a seat in the Virginia lower house (although he briefly became Speaker after the war). He never rose above the respectability of a middle-class attorney (although he owned ten slaves in 1861, a relatively high number in this convention and evidence that personal slaveholdings were no prediction of a delegate’s preference). Baldwin was not even the most important Whiggish politician in his immediate family; Alexander H. H. Stuart, his wealthier...

    • 9 Hugh Nelson’s Unionist Speech, March 26
      (pp. 89-93)

      If no one needed more editorial help than John Baldwin, no one needed less such aid than Hugh Mortimer Nelson. This forty-nine-year-old attorney represented the Shenandoah Valley’s Clarke County (47.2 percent enslaved). Nelson, who never held office before the convention, died in 1862 from war wounds incurred in Stonewall Jackson’s Valley campaign. No other speaker in Part I of this book suffered death on the battlefields. Appropriately, no other speaker delivered such a crisp, spare warning about secessionists’ mortal gamble.¹

      . . . Sir, I have the honor to represent . . . the largest slaveholding county in proportion to...

    • 10 Thomas Flournoy’s Unionist Speech, March 30
      (pp. 94-100)

      Thomas Stanhope Flournoy, representing the Piedmont’s Halifax County (56.2 percent enslaved), had better fortune before and during the war than Hugh Nelson. Flournoy, forty-nine years old in 1860, would survive his own hard times in Stonewall Jackson’s Valley army. Before the war he had been a U.S. congressman, 1847–49, and the Know-Nothings’ candidate for governor in 1855. lournoy received more votes than any previous candidate for the state’s highest office. But his opponent, Henry Wise, received more ballots still, prefiguring Wise and the secessionists’ victory over Flournoy and the Unionists six years later.¹

      . . . Mr. Chairman, ....

    • 11 James Barbour’s Secessionist Speech, March 30–April 1
      (pp. 101-112)

      James Barbour represented Culpeper County in Virginia’s western Piedmont (35 percent enslaved). A lawyer and minor slaveholder, he was a younger son of one of Virginia’s most prominent families, a clan long closely allied with the nearby Jefferson and Madison families. Thirty-seven years old in 1861, James Barbour was the youngest speaker in this book and the only one who concurrently held a seat in Virginia’s lower legislative house.

      There, a year earlier, he had led the successful opposition to South Carolina’s call for a southern convention, in the wake of John Brown’s raid. Barbour’s unsuccessful countervailing proposal: Virginia should...

    • 12 Robert Montague’s Secessionist Speech, April 1–2
      (pp. 113-121)

      Lieutenant Governor Robert Latané Montague, forty-one years old in 1861, represented the Tidewater’s Mathews and Middlesex counties (together 48.4 percent enslaved). This descendant of one of Virginia’s first families was one of the convention’s few large planters and its highest-ranking current officeholder (Governor Henry Wise and U.S. President John Tyler being former holders of their higher positions). In 1859 Montague had defeated Waitman Willey for his state post. He would serve later in the Confederate House of Representatives and as a postwar Virginia state legislator and judge.¹

      . . . When this confederation was formed, . . . two great...

    • 13 George Richardson’s Secessionist Speech, April 3–4
      (pp. 122-129)

      George William Richardson’s brilliance as delegate from the western Tidewater’s Hanover County (55.1 percent enslaved) demonstrated again that oratorical skill, rather than fame or wealth, yielded notoriety in this debate. This middleclass lawyer and petty slaveholder, forty years old in 1860, had never before and would never again hold office. He was as much a lifelong outsider as Robert Montague was a perpetual insider. Yet in this conclave, democratic for middle-aged and propertied white men, these two late-speaking secessionists waxed equally powerful oratorically. As an explanation of disunionist motivation, Richardson’s fury about wounded honor also rivaled George Wythe Randolph’s logic...

    • 14 Chapman Stuart’s Unionist Speech, April 5
      (pp. 130-132)

      As the preceding three secessionist speeches indicate, disunionist orators dominated the convention’s proceedings during the final days before the war. But during this increasingly tense period, Unionists still possessed the numerical advantage. Chapman Johnson Stuart’s brief outburst summed up a crucial reason for the secessionists’ continued shortfall.

      Chapman Stuart, not to be confused with Alexander H. H. Stuart from the Valley’s Augusta County, represented the Trans-Allegheny’s Tyler and Doddridge counties (together containing only fifty-two slaves). Although one of the few convention speakers who owned no slaves, the forty-year-old Stuart professed utter loyalty to slavery—and prescient conviction that secession would...

  8. Part II Taxation Debated

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 133-134)

      On April 5 Chapman Stuart entwined his assault against secessionists’ counterproductive revolution with an attack against slaveholders’ counterproductive tax breaks. Unless you remove the state’s constitutional ban on full taxation of your slaves, Stuart warned eastern slaveholders, “you might as well undertake to remove the Alleghany Mountains from their base, as to induce the people of the Northwest, for present causes, to secede from the Union.”¹

      According to Virginia’s constitution of 1851, slaves twelve years of age and over could not be valued at more than $300 for purposes of tax assessments. Property in slaves under twelve could not be...

    • 15 William G. Brown Initiates the Taxation Debate, March 7
      (pp. 135-135)

      Although westerners had introduced taxation resolutions in the convention earlier, the issue only reached center stage on the convention’s nineteenth day. Then William G. Brown, representing northwestern Virginia’s Preston County (0.5 percent enslaved), moved to establish a “Committee of Finance” to consider “State . . . taxation.” Brown followed up with the convention’s first (albeit brief) inflammatory speech on ad valorem taxation.

      . . . My noble friend from Northampton [Mr. Miers Fisher] the other day . . . offered a resolution looking to the appropriation of millions for the defence of the State. I know, sir, that he will...

    • 16 Waitman Willey Introduces His Motion, March 16
      (pp. 136-137)

      Immediately after William G. Brown’s speech, the convention tabled his motion, 69–41. Nine days later, however, Waitman Willey made a similar motion for a special committee to consider ad valorem taxes. Willey delivered as provocative a speech as Brown’s, and this time the debate exploded.

      I hold in my hand some resolutions which I propose to offer for the consideration of the Convention. . . .

      We have now been earnestly engaged for more than a month in the great work of inaugurating a national conciliation. . . . But, sir, while we are thus engaged in settling our...

    • 17 The Confrontation That Willey’s Motion Provoked, March 18–19
      (pp. 138-144)

      Two days later, proponents and opponents of ad valorem taxation clashed over Willey’s proposed committee. Even an easterner’s proposed compromise, offering to trade eastern support for tax reform for western support for secession, only propelled charges that each side meant to blackmail the other.

      . . . It has been charged, sir, upon the North-western portion of the people, that I in part have the honor to represent, that they are Abolitionists. . . . Sir, if that were true I should not have a seat upon this floor. I am not only interested directly in the institution of slavery,...

    • 18 Willey’s Climactic Taxation Speech, March 28 and April 2
      (pp. 145-147)

      After the initial burst of hostility, the debate on ad valorem taxation dragged on as inconclusively as the confrontation over secession. The convention’s rules, limiting debate on taxation to a couple of morning hours, helped delay a decision. But as with disunion, dread of a settlement, one way or the other, led many to procrastinate. As March turned into April, Willey’s final appeal for a committee on taxation underlined the stakes in the convention’s imminent (he thought) decision.

      Before the vote is taken on . . . [my] resolutions, . . . I should explain . . . the reasons...

    • 19 The Final Presecession Confrontation on Taxation, April 10–11
      (pp. 148-151)

      On April 10, more than a week after Willey (mistakenly) thought that the convention’s vote on his proposed committee was imminent, Henry Alexander Wise initiated the final confrontation on Willey’s motion.¹ Wise had lately been the state’s especially flamboyant governor. He had long been one of Virginia’s most remarkable leaders. For decades, he had been especially loved (or hated) for his demagogic speeches.

      This famous orator, however, had been curiously unimportant in the convention’s previous forensic duels. Perhaps Wise was too ill to make an extended oratorical effort. Or perhaps the secessionist thought that action must now replace speeches. At...

    • 20 Willey’s Motion Adopted, April 11
      (pp. 152-152)

      After Williams C. Wickham spoke, the convention at last voted on Waitman Willey’s motion to set up a committee to consider ad valorem taxation. It was now thirty-five days since William G. Brown’s initial speech on the subject and twenty-six days since Willey had introduced his motion, a measurement of delegates’ wariness. It was also only hours before the commencement of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, a measurement of delay’s futility. At this juncture enough eastern delegates decided that slaveholders had more to lose from alienating western nonslaveholders (and over a mere committee) than from risking a committee proposal...

  9. Part III Decisions

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 153-154)

      In early April, while the taxation issue widened the division between eastern and western Virginians, events beyond the state threatened to drive most delegates together on secession, and thus to increase the western dissenters’ rage at their unequal power.

      The more extreme western Virginians aside, most delegates agreed that secession was legitimate, even when they disagreed on the tactic’s expediency. If circumstances changed, the agreement could trump all disagreements. Because the people of a state supposedly had a right to withdraw their consent to be governed, Abraham Lincoln must never lash withdrawing citizens like unconsenting slaves. If the supposed tyrant...

    • 21 The Quest for Lincoln’s Intentions, April 6
      (pp. 155-159)

      On Friday, April 5, John Baldwin was back in the convention. There he told fellow moderates about his discouraging White House interview. The next day, conditional Unionists commenced their official quest for Lincoln’s intentions.

      The moderates’ leader at this stage of the convention was the renowned William Ballard Preston. Preston, at age fifty-five, was one of the convention’s oldest leaders. He had served in both houses of the Virginia legislature, in Congress, and in Zachary Taylor’s cabinet as secretary of the navy. On Saturday, April 6, this representative from the southern Trans-Allegheny’s Montgomery Country (20.9 percent enslaved) moved that the...

    • 22 The Beginning of the End, April 13
      (pp. 160-164)

      The convention delegates reconvened on Monday, April 8, having moved, at this pregnant moment, back to the Hall of the House of Delegates for the duration of the convention. Inside that customary home of the Virginia lower house, delegates passed William Ballard Preston’s commissioner motion. Then they elected him, along with the Valley’s Alexander H. H. Stuart and the secessionists’ George Wythe Randolph, as their commissioners to visit President Lincoln immediately.

      The weather canceled the immediacy. A prolonged rainstorm postponed the commissioners’ arrival in Washington for four days. The president could not see them for the better part of another...

    • 23 Decision Barely Averted, April 15
      (pp. 165-168)

      On April 13 Thomas Goode accepted Early’s claim that no insult had been intended. The resumption of pleasantries after near gunfire epitomized the convention majority’s determination on April 13, after hearing telegraph rumors about Fort Sumter’s fall: to continue with business as usual, despite rising anxiety. Shortly after Goode and Early declared a truce, the convention adjourned for the second straight tense Sunday.

      As the convention reassembled on Monday, April 15, telegraph wires hummed with far more disruptive news than perhaps temporary bloodshed at a distant fort. President Lincoln’s proclamation of that day called up 75,000 troops (including, Secretary of...

    • 24 Eve of Decision, April 16
      (pp. 169-188)

      By the next day even John Baldwin conceded that yesterday’s telegraph wires broadcast the awful truth. Thus the convention went immediately into secret session.

      In secret session George Wythe Randolph picked up Wise’s logic, without Wise’s Latin vocabulary. Military necessity, urged Randolph, required not only instant secession but also immediate seizure of federal military treasure, in the name of the people and before they ratified the convention’s secession ordinance. Otherwise, the federals would sneak military matériel out of their Virginia installations—Harpers Ferry Arsenal and Norfolk’s Gosport Navy Yard—thereby undermining Virginia citizens’ subsequent vote for war.

      . . ....

    • 25 The Convention’s Secession Ordinance Adopted, April 17
      (pp. 189-195)

      On the evening of April 16, John Baldwin managed a last pause. His still-Unionist colleagues barely passed an adjournment motion, 76-66.

      The next day, secessionists ended delay. With westerners now the only speakers, protests against eastern secessionists dominated the secret session. Alpheus F. Haymond, representing Marion County (0.5 percent enslaved), brought the west’s futile oratory to a climax.

      . . . I have never been a disunionist. I have been in favor of perpetuating forever, if possible, the Constitution and our Union. . . . I had engaged in this body, with my whole heart and my whole soul, ....

    • 26 The Climactic Wise-Baldwin Debate, April 17
      (pp. 196-201)

      Within the hour the convention voted 88-55 for William Ballard Preston’s secession ordinance, to take effect when the people endorsed it on May 23. Eleven more Unionists broke from that lately dominant coalition after Robert Scott lost the pivotal test vote.

      The ensuing convention debate would have been anticlimactic except for its oratorical brilliance, its relevance to western Virginia’s still unmade critical decision, and its illumination of a timeless democratic puzzle, never more pressing than in the early twenty-first century. The forensic masterpiece has escaped the attention of almost all previous writers¹ (including, alas, these editors). But when Henry Wise...

    • 27 The Clarksburg Call, April 22
      (pp. 202-203)

      John Baldwin predicted that most of Virginia’s citizens would resist Henry Wise’s strike. Although wrong about most Virginians, Baldwin was right about most northwesterners. Angry nonslaveholders in locales with scarcely a slave found disunion even more intolerable because troops had preempted voters’ sole right to withdraw consent to be governed. So said many of the northern Trans-Allegheny delegates as they rushed from the convention after the April 17 secession vote, determined to rally their constituents against everything that Wise’s horse pistol epitomized.

      Upon reaching home, John Carlile wrote the first document in the second Virginia revolution of the week. At...

    • 28 The Convention’s Ad Valorem Taxation Ordinance Adopted, April 26
      (pp. 204-206)

      The Clarksburg Call put a new perspective on the old campaign for ad valorem taxation and its underlying demand: that slaveholders must not compromise white egalitarianism, to solidify the inequality of blacks. Henry Wise’s military strike arguably had violated one element of white republicanism: the people’s right to withdraw their consent to be governed, before the guns of war determined the matter. In compensation, secessionists could remove a previous violation of republican equality: the unequal taxation of slaveholders’ and nonslaveholders’ property. Then less-offended western yeomen might better accept the loss of the Union, in effect achieved before the required majority...

    • 29 Popular Decisions in May
      (pp. 207-208)

      The May 13 Wheeling Convention, resulting from the Clarksburg Call, decided to await Virginia voters’ verdict on the convention’s secession and ad valorem taxation ordinances. On May 23 Virginia citizens approved the taxation ordinance by a nine-to-one margin and the secession ordinance by a four-to-one margin, with western Virginians disapproving of disunion by almost two-to-one. Then in June a second Wheeling Convention began the process of northwestern Virginia’s secession from Virginia, despite eastern Virginians’ concession of ad valorem taxation and despite some Trans-Allegheny counties’ opposition to West Virginia statehood. Lincoln’s April 15 military proclamation and Wise’s April 17 announcement of...

  10. Suggestions for Further Reading
    (pp. 209-210)