Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Virginia: Secession in the Defense of the Defense of Slavery

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 25, 2013



In April 2010, the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan penned an essay called, “The New Intolerance.” The piece was subsequently re-blogged by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who posted it under the headline, “Buchanan Exposes Yankee Terrorists.” Buchanan’s essay was part of the kerfuffle over Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration of Confederate History Month, the text of which was drafted for his office by the SCV, and omitted any mention of slavery at all. McDonnell subsequently reissued a revised proclamation, and in 2011 established a broader statewide commemoration, “Civil War History in Virginia Month.

Buchanan’s essay revolves around the oft-made claim that “Virginia did not secede in defense of slavery.” He continues:


When Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, March 4, 1861, Virginia was still in the Union. Only South Carolina, Georgia and the five Gulf states had seceded and created the Confederate States of America. . . . But, on April 15, Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers from the state militias to march south and crush the new Confederacy. Two days later, April 17, Virginia seceded rather than provide soldiers or militia to participate in a war on their brethren. North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas followed Virginia out over the same issue. They would not be a party to a war on their kinfolk.​


Buchanan doesn’t bother to explain why Mississippi or Texas should be considered to be Virginians’ “kinfolk,” in a way that much closer states — say, Pennsylvania or Ohio, with which Virginia shared a common border in 1861 — were not. Fortunately, those who wrote Virginia’s ordinance of secession said explicitly what they had in common, citing “oppression of the Southern slaveholding States” as part of the justification for its actions:


The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention, on the 25th day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eight-eight, having declared that the powers granted them under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding States.


Virginia was not a fire-eating state that led the way on secession. But when the chips were down, the Commonwealth recognized slaveholding as the common bond that (1) defined the seceded states, (2) held Virginia to South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and those other states that seceded earlier, and (3) was deemed stronger and more vital to Virginia’s interest than its bond to the Union.

Does that count as ” seceding in defense of slavery?” Maybe. But it certainly counts as seceding in the defense of the defense of slavery.


Image: Virginia regimental flag, via Encyclopedia Virginia.


7 Responses

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  1. Andy Hall said, on September 25, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    There’s not much more to it; it’s not a complex thing. Like the various declarations of causes for secession, they were fairly clear about how they defined their common bond with the other seceding states.

    It’s too bad Virginia doesn’t have a better (D) running this cycle; McAuliffe makes “Rolex Bob” McDonnell look like a paragon of grass-roots virtue.

  2. Michael Rodgers said, on September 25, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    It seems more aggressive than defensive. The people who declared secession on behalf of the each of the slaveholding states did so because they were afraid of losing slavery, wanted to continue profiting from a slave society forever, and thought they could get away with it.
    President Lincoln told them no. His whole July 4 Message to Congress is rich, beautiful, and overwhelmingly argued. My favorite part is “The little disguise that the supposed right [to secede] is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.”

  3. Mark DC (@FilmCriticOne) said, on September 25, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Why on earth does everyone run away from the Five Southern Ultimatums — as appeared in Virginia papers in May of 1861, and were the basis of the entire Confederacy? The Five Ultimatums — shame on your history teacher for never mentioning them — were all about the same thing – THE SPREAD OF SLAVERY

    Get out of here with that lame and inaccurate claim of “defense” of slavery. As Southern governor of Florida wrote in that state’s official declaration of causes, Lincoln was NOT out to end slavery where it existed — in fact, the governor wrote “nor is anyone claiming that” (paraphrased). The issue, wrote the governor of Florida, was the SPREAD of slavery — just like Davis said it was, just like the Five Ultimatums said it was, just like Southern leaders had demanded for decades, the SPREAD of slavery. Not the protection of it.,

    For some reason — political correctness I guess — there is this catatonic state of “historians” writing today, such as Eric Foner, who just does not want to make any one mad below Mason Dixon law, by showing what Davis demanded, what Southern documents demanded, and what Southern newspapers bragged about — the spread of slavery. In fact, because Kansas had rejected slavery by vote and their own war against slavery — to demand the spread of slavery into Kansas was the ultimate urination on states rights.

    Not many people seem to grasp this, but by 1861, the Confederate leaders were not repeating States Rights as the excuse to spread slavery. That excuse was gone. The new excuse, used at length by Jeff Davis, was Dred Scott declaration that blacks were property — not “part of the persons”: and their “status” wrote Taney, was that of property, protected by the Constitution. No Congress, no state, no territory, could grant person status to those of African descent. The Constitutional status of slaves –and freed blacks — was not that of persons. Their status was PROPERTY.

    And Kansas must not only allow that property, Kansas must “accept and protect” that property by legislation.

    Davis himself writing about this after the Civil War, was about as candid as he could get, declaring that the resistance to the spread of slavery was the “intolerable grievance”. Davis hilariously said that if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way, the South was going to give up slavery. But because the Taney Court had declared blacks as having the status of property, this meant no territory could prevent slave owners from taking their property with them, slave property or otherwise.

    This was not a tiny point, this was ground zero, this was where push met shove. Lincoln spoke in these terms too — over and over saying Dred Scott decision was the way Southern leaders were trying to force slavery where it was not wanted, and not allowed.

    If you don’t get that, I suggest you read the LIncoln Douglas debates, which were about little else. Lincoln and Douglas went round and round on this point — over and over, city after city. they didn’t kinda discuss it in these terms, they discussed it out the petunia in these terms. Douglas gives as his sole reason that slavery should spread as the Dred Scott decision. He would later not support the deceptive fake constitution slave owners had concocted by fraud in Lecompton, which gave the voter no choice, they could chose slavery a or slavery b. No place on the ballot to vote against slavery! That was their trick.

    Later, Kansas folks had another election, this one not staged by hustlers, and rejected slavery. Southern leaders wanted Douglas to back that deception, but he would not, one of the only honorable things Douglas did in his life. The Southern leaders hated him for it.

    Regardless, the issue was the spread of slavery. If you don’t understand that, you can’t understand Lincoln, or Davis, or Dred Scott, or anything else that went on.

  4. Robert Moore said, on September 26, 2013 at 5:18 am

    A couple of points…

    First, the hub-bub with Buchanan is just silly. “Buchanan exposes Yankee terrorists” and “Virginia did not secede in defense of slavery.” The first part is just an example of how the word “terrorist” (especially since 2001) has become a word people like to fling around… more out of convenience than anything else. I have little tolerance or respect for the abuse of the word in this form (on the other hand, if there are those who insist we talk about “terrorists”, maybe we need to bring in a discussion about ex-Governor Henry Wise and his antics in last days of the Virginia Convention, as well as his unauthorized mobilization of the Virginia Militia toward Harpers Ferry and Norfolk). Second, the thing about Virginia not seceding in defense of slavery. The reality of it is, depending on where the focus is in Virginia, that could be a “yes AND no” matter.

    That’s where I don’t necessarily agree with your suggestion, Andy.

    I agree that Virginia wasn’t a fire-eating state, but there were those (especially from the east… and yes, even in the west) who were ready for secession before April 1861, and it was this group who gained the upper hand in the Virginia Convention because of… not a warm and fuzzy feeling about being one with South Carolina, et al (there are lots of newspapers in Virginia that demonstrate quite the opposite, well in advance of April, 1861), not the firing on Ft. Sumter… but rather, Lincoln’s call for troops.

    This tipped many of those who were, up to that point, clearly Unionist. Then too, we have… Henry Wise and his shenanigans (including his dramatics with the horse pistol), that probably helped push even more over the edge.

    Were there delegates who wanted to see Virginia secede in defense of slavery? Absolutely… and that’s where Buchanan’s (and the SCV’s) claim fails.

    On the other hand, as for “Seceding in the defense of the defense of slavery”…

    It’s not that simple, and it shouldn’t be made that simple.

    My recommendation… in lieu of reading into the final outcome, I encourage going back to the speeches of these men and look for what motivated them up to that point. Only then can we get an accurate grasp on what was going on. Each man should be evaluated, individually, for the position which he took. Even the April 4 and April 17 votes don’t reveal all that was going on behind the scenes, or what battles the individual delegates were dealing with in their own heads.

  5. Billy Bearden said, on September 26, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    Left’s collective memory lapse? Pick on the repub guy! We’re all Obama voters, so obviously the red elephants must be beaten up….

    Ga Gov Roy Barnes issued ‘slavery mention – free’ Confederate History Month proclamations, and he was a democrat
    Ark Gov Bill Clinton issued some pro – Confederate proclamations. Hillary spoke to UDC Chapters. Bill signed the law codifying the star above Arkansas was representative of the Confederacy.
    I know of 2 black government leaders – one a mayor, one a commission chair – who have signed such proclamations without slavery mentions.

    McDonnell’s problem was that he caved at the pressure brought by Ed Schultz, Chris Matthews, Olbermann, and the Levins and Halls in the world.

    • Andy Hall said, on September 26, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      Nuanced as always, Billy. I had no idea I had such influence on Virginia politics.

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