Today it seems almost inconceivable. Eleven states, in the Southern region of the United States, called constitutional conventions and in a matter of months formally withdrew from the nation. In breathtaking speed they had established an entirely new and separate nation with a capital at Montgomery, Alabama. What made this possible?
After all, secession seems entirely counterintuitive. Why would the most wealthy individuals, the men with the most to lose in society, risk everything, including slavery, as well as their lives, peace, property, prosperity, position, and inheritance? Why would they knowingly bring on a war with the United States by creating a new and risky republic in the South, and then throw everything into its defense until their capital lay in ruins, their population half-starved, and every army battered into total submission?
Historian and leading scholar of the Civil War, James McPherson answers that secession was a “counter-revolution” not a “revolution.” White southerners, he argues, saw the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party as the revolutionaries. The move to secede was a counter-revolution, a conservative effort designed to protect what they had and stem the tide of change sweeping across the nation. All of their resistance, he argues, was aimed at maintaining slavery and their position in society. To McPherson the answer is straightforward–they saw a greater risk in the Union and perceived themselves as the inheritors of the true republican virtues of the Revolution. Their new republic was, therefore, modeled on the “union as it was” before the slavery issue threatened their principles and prosperity. McPherson indicates that the South was in a way seeking to turn back the clock or at least stop time. Their vision was not progressive but regressive.
When you read the four volumes of The Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, or an updated history of what the southern delegates said to the Virginia convention (Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion), however, a number of further considerations become equally important. Virginia, of course, included West Virginia at the time and so delegates came from the far western, mountainous counties too where slavery was less prominent. The convention met for weeks in Richmond and those favoring immediate secession maneuvered to keep the convention in session, hoping for a dramatic event that might tip the votes their way. Eventually, the got their wish, as President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from Virginia and the other states after the firing on Fort Sumter. Lincoln clearly intended to suppress secession in the South and Virginia’s delegates voted the next day 88-55 to secede with the South and join the Confederacy.
Let’s reconsider, though, what these delegates said.
First, not a single Virginia delegate criticized slavery. Indeed, many of the western delegates were slaveholders and those that did not spoke in support of the institution. No delegate wanted to be branded an abolitionist. Delegates outdid one another to voice their commitment to slavery. Slavery and its protection was clearly in the forefront of their motivations.
Second, slavery was not just an abstract or political issue, but one that for these white men was centered on “property.” When Thomas Branch of Petersburg offered his constituents’ views in the form of a resolution to the Convention, it was to affirm that “negro slaves are property.” Somehow, these white Southerners thought, the North had lost sense of slavery as a form of property and needed to be reminded of the bare, essential nature of the rights the South was going to defend. Branch for his part only needed to state that he would represent the will of his constituents and that meant immediate secession.
Third, the debates read as if they took place outside of time, and indicate that the delegates, however duly constituted, had few ways to articulate what was happening in the spirit of the white South. Despite the fast pace of events and the complex political and diplomatic issues at stake, the Virginia delegates spent hours and days parsing words such as “sovereignty” and “person” and “vital” and “social institution.” The delegates gave long-winded explications of constitutional history and read into the record as evidence the speeches, letters, and proclamations of Lincoln, New York U. S. Senator William H. Seward, Massachusetts U.S. Senator Henry Wilson, and others. There was remarkably little discussion of the real events taking place, the possibilities of war, the nature of the conflict, or the resources at their command. The delegates were assembled to debate “secession” as a legal right and to craft an ordinance that would tender Virginia’s withdrawal from the United States of America.
Fourth, despite the close votes in February 1861 and the reluctance of some to cause a war, the majority of these delegates already understood themselves as part of a Southern, modern nation on equal footing with the North, as well as Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. Indeed, a number of delegates placed the idea of the Confederacy in the context of newly forming nation-states in Europe. They saw themselves as part of the vanguard of modern state formation. Their sense of Southern progress, civilization, and modernity may be the most surprising aspect of the debates.
This last point is critical. The state conventions and legal machinations that flowed from them structured the debates over secession in very specific and circumscribed ways, especially in Virginia. Unlike the deep South states where the procedures moved quickly in December 1860, Virginia with its long history of Revolutionary heritage stood in the breach for months, the decisive tipping point, and the Virginia delegates knew it. It was no wonder they acted cautiously.
Only when we take the debates for what they were–a constitutional forum burdened with the history of Virginia’s role in the United States–can we begin to see the underlying frameworks that made secession not only possible but likely. The view of slaves, of course, as property offered the decisive common ground for these white Virginians. But confidence was equally important. Not confidence in a constitutional right worthy of defense, but instead confidence in the capacity to hold up a modern nation-state on the world stage. In this respect nothing about Virginia’s secession might be considered counter-revolutionary. “Nations act on their interests,” one Virginia delegate argued, “not on their sentiments.” (Vol. II, p. 673)
The idea itself is strikingly modern. As for the South, and indeed Virginia, it could not do otherwise if it purported to be a nation, to be sovereign to itself, to be a civilization worthy of the world’s respect. “It is a fact, Mr. Chairman,” the delegate concluded, “that there is a separate national existence at Montgomery.” (Vol. II, p. 675) The question was when, not if, Virginia would join it.