• E-Books
  • Office of Scholarly Publishing
  • Latest Catalogs
  • Books for Courses
  • Exhibits Listing
  • View Cart

Quick Browse

408 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 19 illus., 16 tables, 4 maps, notes, bibl., index

$45.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2771-1
Published: Spring 2003

$22.50 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5661-4
Published: Fall 2005

 Add Cloth to cart
 Add Paper to cart
 View cart

Roots of Secession
Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

by William A. Link

Copyright (c) 2005, 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


Today, few professional historians deny the central significance of slavery in the sectional crisis.[1] Yet despite the work of historians such as Kenneth Greenberg, who describes a "political culture of slavery," or John Ashworth, who examines an intersection between slavery and politics, slaves remain on the margins. North and South, according to many historians, clashed not so much over slavery as an institution as they did over the political power of southern slaveholders. Most scholars agree that the political crisis of sectionalism arose from attempts to restrict the westward expansion of slavery and slaveholder control of the national government. But in their emphasis on slaveholders' political power, historians have said little about how slaves' actions affected politics or how politics affected slaves' actions.[2]

This book examines the interconnections between slavery, slaves, and politics, the impact that this relationship had on the sectional conflict, and the way in which, as a result, the political narrative played out in Virginia during the 1850s. White Virginians often referred to "emissaries in our midst"—agents whom they feared were engaged in subversion. Usually that meant northern abolitionists and their associates, but slaveholders meant much more by the term. Within Virginia society, warned House of Delegates member William H. Browne in February 1856, were "secret yet efficient emissaries of Northern abolitionism." Browne so described free blacks who, he claimed, sought to poison the slave's mind by "inciting him, by unhallowed counsel, to insubordination and rebellion—seducing him, if possible, from allegiance to his master, and instilling, as far as practicable, into his mind false and fallacious notions of liberty and equality, wholly incompatible with the relations of master and slave." These "emissaries" were "fit instruments for sapping the very foundation of our peace and happiness."[3]

Subversive "emissaries" meant not just free blacks: the term included the half-million enslaved African Americans whom slaveholders considered friends and foes, allies and enemies, family members and invaders. Slaves were "emissaries" of subversion in at least two respects: they represented forces of internal discord and of external invasion. This sense of "emissaries" within Virginia society was no wild slaveholder fiction: slaves resisted slaveholder domination, and their resistance often brought political consequences. These consequences included slaveholder paranoia, but scholars should also acknowledge slaves' awareness of the political context of the 1850s. Although that awareness was often vague and unfocused and set apart from the white world of electoral politics, slaves occupied an important place in the antebellum political context. The extent to which slaves realized that the sectional politics of the 1850s were leading toward their freedom is difficult to document, yet there are many instances in which slaves willingly sought to exploit opportunities to undermine slaveholder authority.

I consider Virginia's politics of slavery in two senses. I first examine the commonwealth's experience during the ten years prior to the Civil War and attempt to explain why it left the Union. This is a powerful story, and I have sought to retain the excitement and energy that participants experienced in the political arena of the 1850s. Like other Americans, Virginians practiced politics enthusiastically through a political culture, ideology, and language that was attuned to mid-nineteenth-century social conditions. Few scholars have fully considered Virginia's fascinating political history during the decade before the Civil War: Charles H. Ambler's Sectionalism in Virginia from 1776 to 1861 (1910) and Henry T. Shanks's The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861 (1934) remain the only state studies that include the 1850s. While William Shade has provided a comprehensive history of politics during the Jacksonian era, Craig Simpson's political biography of Henry Wise remains probably the best study of late antebellum politics in the commonwealth.[4]

I am concerned with the politics of slavery in another sense. Thanks to an entire generation of scholarship, we now know a great deal about life under the slave regime: how slaves struggled to create and preserve a distinctive identity, to protect their humanity under the slave system, and to resist oppression. Despite a large literature about the slave community, students of slavery have said little about its impact on political discourse. Recent scholars have widened our definition of politics to encompass various actions, often by oppressed groups, that involve a struggle for power. Certainly, the master-slave struggle must be so considered, but our understanding should expand to encompass the coming of the Civil War. From the institutionalization of slavery in the eighteenth century, a persisting theme in southern social and political life was the conflict between slaves aspiring to freedom and masters seeking to limit it. Despite safeguards imposed on the legal, constitutional, and cultural dimensions of the slave regime, slaveholders could never rest secure in this very human institution, and slaves continued to struggle for freedom.

Some answers to these questions can be found in one Border southern state. Virginia, America's oldest southern colony, was the most populous state of the Confederacy and a major Civil War battleground. On the eve of a terrible war, Virginia, diverse and dynamic, contained major geographical, ethnic, economic, and social differences. In 1860, Virginia included the present state of West Virginia; the commonwealth's territory extended from Chesapeake Bay to the banks of the Ohio River. The commonwealth contained a number of regions within the state, each with distinct personas. The East included the coastal Tidewater, a region that Europeans first settled during the early seventeenth century, and the Piedmont, dominated by tobacco culture and cash-crop plantation agriculture. In the center of the Virginia were two regions that were unusual for a southern state: the Shenandoah Valley and the Southwest. Although slavery did not dominate in either region, an active slaveholding class, with ties to the East, existed in both. There remained a fifth region: the Northwest, which included counties surrounding the Ohio River valley. By the 1850s, this region had become more oriented toward the northern nonslaveholding social system. The Virginia of 1860 was geographically diverse in yet another sense: it possessed major urban centers, such as Alexandria, Lynchburg, Petersburg, and Norfolk, and especially Richmond, the South's leading antebellum manufacturing center. In spite of this diversity, Virginia's social system in every region was rooted in slavery. Enslaved Africans first appeared in the Tidewater during the early seventeenth century; in 1860, Virginia was the largest slaveholding state, with about half a million slaves, more than a million whites, and almost 60,000 free blacks. In 1860, the commonwealth also possessed more slaveholders—more than 52,000 of them—than any other state in the Union. Virginia's slave system encompassed a great range and diversity. Though most slaves lived in the eastern part of the state and though its slaveholders were exporting slaves by the hundreds of thousands in the antebellum period, slavery was a dynamic institution, expanding where the economy was expanding: wherever there was economic activity, slaveholders took the lead.

Valuable as it is, this sort of macrolevel discussion leaves out much of the story, particularly slavery's human—and inhuman—dimensions. How had nearly 250 years of slavery up to 1861 affected Virginia society? How did slavery shape the commonwealth's social and political institutions? On a day-to-day level, the owning of other human beings as chattel property often confounded slaveholders, while the experience of enslavement was debilitating, dehumanizing, and humiliating for slaves, even as they sought and obtained dignity, autonomy, and some degree of agency. The master-slave relationship involved an ongoing struggle, with profound psychological implications. Sometimes this struggle was subtle, played out in the constant infractions that took place as slaves engaged in labor on plantations and as slaveholders tried to determine more scientific methods of managing that labor. But very often the struggle was ugly, violent, and systematically brutal. Occasionally, it might involve outright rebellion, though this was rare and ultimately suicidal, and there are very few examples of such collective action. On the other hand, scores of slaves took individual action—torching their masters' homes, poisoning the food of slaveholder families, assaulting overseers, and beating and murdering mistresses and masters. These individual actions are sometimes difficult to decipher. They appear in the scattered criminal records of antebellum Virginia, in a court system that scrupulously followed the forms of Anglo-American law but offered slaves little chance of justice—a system that reflected the acute fears, presumptions, and prejudices of the slaveholding class.

The slave system was profoundly political, though not in the sense historians are usually prepared to accept. The daily challenges that slaves offered to their oppressors were part of what Robin D. G. Kelley calls "infrapolitics" and the "politics of everyday," recorded in what political anthropologist James C. Scott terms "hidden transcripts." Through small, isolated actions, slaves engaged in a continuing struggle to assert their humanity in daily dramas: in understated forms of challenge, such as malingering, stealing, and property crime, or in overstated forms, such as violent and open resistance to slaveholder authority. The infrapolitics of slaveholder oppression dominated the thinking of masters and slaves: both were determined to shape the social system around them, while both realized that politics was the key to their determination. What Scott calls the "official" or "public" transcript of electoral politics reflected an infrapolitics of slavery.[5]

Applying these insights to understanding antebellum southern politics requires widening our definition of politics, and a number of scholars have urged a reconsideration of the pre-Civil War South. Masters defined themselves according to their ability or inability to control slaves, Kenneth Greenberg suggests, and they applied these habits of control to statehouse politics. Other historians pursue an approach more directly focused on slave resistance. Historian John Ashworth asserts that a "causal significance" existed between slaves' desire for freedom and white anxieties about the sectional conflict. Black resistance to slavery shaped the way that slaveholders constructed their society, organized their government, and created and maintained their legal system. White southerners' anxieties about an antislavery majority seeking to dominate the national government and to undermine the institution of slavery, he argues, reflected African American discontent. Had slaves been contented, slaveholders would have been less likely to respond violently, to restrict freedom of speech, and to require to political conformity. "Behind every event in the history of the sectional controversy," Ashworth asserts, "lurked the consequences of black resistance to slavery." Slaveholder politics and slave resistance thus hold keys to understanding the sectional dynamics of the 1850s. Both slaveholder power and slave resistance, William Freehling maintains, should be considered keys to secession's dynamics. This "newer political history" and a "reintegrated American multicultural history" might cast the Civil War in a new light.[6]

Slavery became a metaphor for larger social tensions of the late antebellum period. These tensions affected nonslaveholders and slaveholders alike; both realized that changes were affecting Virginia society, remaking the social landscape and reorienting patterns of social, economic, and cultural life. Politics in Virginia, like politics elsewhere in nineteenth-century America, was partisan and participatory, with rich and elaborate rituals and a political culture that composed part of a larger spectacle. For most of the 1830s and 1840s, politics were highly competitive. Although the Democratic Party maintained a slight majority, Whigs remained dominant in urban areas, the Tidewater, and counties along the northern border. Democrats, in contrast, constructed a strong coalition of Piedmont slaveholders, Valley farmers, and western nonslaveholders. As in other parts of Jacksonian America, Whigs appealed to advocates of banks and commercial expansion, and they favored expanded public support for infrastructure such as transportation facilities. Democrats remained strongest on the periphery of the market economy; they tailored their message to small farmers and individual entrepreneurs. Whigs appealed to larger planters with slaves, and they saw their future in a dynamic market economy, aided by improved transportation. Democrats sought the votes of slaveholders on the edge—whether they were small slaveholders or slaveholders migrating into new plantation areas. Both Whigs and Democrats made slavery a central part of their message during the Jacksonian era, and their dialogue was framed around republican values and libertarian ideals. Both parties asserted that they protected slaveholders' rights within the constitutional system; they claimed to do so as part of an effort to protect white males' political liberties. But during the 1850s the partisan political system changed, and the changes in the system figured significantly in the coming of the Civil War.[7]

Rather than remaining static, seigniorial, and paternalist, Virginia changed rapidly during the 1850s. What James Oakes calls slavery's "fatal anomaly"—its close association with an expanding liberal capitalist social and economic system—appeared prominently during the late antebellum years.[8] The spread of railroads brought the new, dynamic economic forces of the marketplace. Towns and cities developed into important centers of commerce, trade, and manufacturing. As a result, economic, cultural, and social contact extended to the nation and the world, and this interaction fundamentally affected slavery. The market economy's expansion helped to broaden slaveholding outside the plantation, into towns, commerce, manufacturing, and mining; prices for slaves and the capital values of slaveholders rose. But there can be little doubt that slavery in late antebellum Virginia, and the Border South generally, experienced an erosion of its traditional underpinnings. Virginia's experience paralleled that of Maryland. In both states, the free black population grew by natural increase, while slaves assumed new roles. With the decline of traditional plantation agriculture in Tidewater and Piedmont Virginia, slaveholders faced a labor surplus, and they responded to it either by selling their slaves or by hiring them out to other expanding sectors of the economy in transportation and manufacturing.[9]

The increase in slave hiring became the most important example of changes affecting slavery. It partly accounted for a growing population of slaves who existed outside masters' direct control. Hired slaves lacked supervision; slaveholders' eroding authority, many believed, encouraged slave insubordination and even rebellion. At the same time, national events turned ominous. In the Compromise of 1850, the new Fugitive Slave Act evoked northern opposition; for white Southerners, the law became a symbol of the unwillingness of the federal government to honor traditional constitutional protections for slaveholders. With the decline of the Whigs as a national political party, slaveholders feared that politics had become an arena for sectional oppression. The Know-Nothings competed as the leading anti-Democratic party in the mid-1850s, but the new Republican Party eclipsed them by 1856. "Black" Republicans emerged as a new antislavery political party seeking to encircle slave society, limit its expansion, and eventually undermine the southern social order.

Believing fervently in republican institutions and the Union, Virginians embraced national notions of business enterprise and public culture. Most were enthusiastic capitalists, connected to the outside world and acutely aware of the market revolution.[10] But their social and political world was tumultuous during the late antebellum period. In this world slaveholders feared a loss of control over slaves, and masters' struggle to preserve domination control had political consequences. Philip Schwarz's comprehensive study of slave crime suggests an increase in violence by slaves during the 1850s; cases of defiance of the slave regime appeared to be on the rise.[11] Although no comprehensive data exist to document whether crime was actually increasing, many Virginia masters believed that their authority was eroding. Slaves seemed more willing to challenge masters, usually by individual acts. Many slaves undermined the system by stealing, refusing to work, or confounding the "efficiency" of the plantation. Others, fed up with slaveholder brutality, fought back by assaulting masters and overseers, by engaging in murder, poisoning, or arson. Still others defied the slave regime by running away. Individual acts of slave resistance were not unique to the 1850s: what made them different was the changing political environment. Slaveholders' elaborate legal, constitutional, and political safeguards appeared to be under attack, as the national debate focused on limiting, not protecting, masters' political rights. Both slaves and slaveholders became acutely aware of the sea change in the national political atmosphere, and rising master-slave tensions colored the political dynamic in Virginia.

During the 1850s, infrapolitics and traditional politics occasionally converged: the private struggle became public, and this convergence energized the sectional crisis. A debate about state constitutional reform in 1850-51 became preoccupied with how much the political system protected slavery. In 1852, the case of Jordan Hatcher, a Richmond slave who killed his overseer, highlighted larger issues of slave unruliness and western Virginia's disloyalty to the slave regime. In 1856, the unsuccessful attempts of slaveholder James Parsons to retrieve his family's runaway slave in Pennsylvania inspired a controversy that revealed much about slaveholders' anxieties. And the invasion of abolitionist John Brown and his army in 1859 also reinforced ties between private and public politics because of the extent to which it involved resisting slaves, disloyal nonslaveholders, and the Republican Party.

As in the rest of the South, in Virginia there existed an organized group of disunionists, most of whom had concluded by the time of the Compromise of 1850 that an independent southern nation was desirable. They saw a direct connection between slavery and politics; their own words provide the most revealing evidence of this. Eventually, the disunionists succeeded, in April 1861, in taking Virginia out of the Union. They believed that the Constitution, though originally conceived in part as an instrument to protect slaveholding, now threatened the slave republic. The Republican Party further perverted the Union, they believed, because it was dedicated to transforming the federal government into a vehicle to oppress slaveholders.

In Virginia, as in the rest of the Border South, secessionists faced frustration, for the sectional crisis played out in a complex and often surprising fashion. Because of its great diversity, Virginia does not fit the usual stereotype of secessionist domination, though its southern rights radicals were as determined as any in the South. Indeed, extraordinary public discussion accompanied the onset of political crisis in the commonwealth. Although political discourse became acutely polarized with the advent of an aggressive antislavery movement and of the Republican Party, Virginia's social diversity translated into an intriguing dialogue about the Union during the period immediately prior to secession.

This dialogue reflected conflicting versions of the commonwealth's identity. Closely affiliated with like-minded leaders across the South, disunionists favored a version that embraced a southern identity achieved through an independent Confederacy. In contrast, other Virginians, more moderate and Unionist in their inclinations, believed that the commonwealth should serve as an intermediary between the slave states and the North. The survival of a Virginia Whig coalition, with its orientation toward constitutionalism, underlay moderate Unionism and provided a counterweight to southern extremism. Even after John Brown's invasion of Harpers Ferry, moderates succeeded in regrouping under the Opposition Party's banner, which, in the presidential election of 1860, carried the commonwealth for John Bell. While partisan competition declined and antipartyism increased during the 1850s in other southern states, two-party competition survived in Virginia.[12] Unlike the Deep South, which seceded between December 1860 and February 1861, Virginia moderates held the balance of power until mid-April 1861. Like Maryland and Kentucky, which did not secede, and Tennessee and North Carolina, which delayed doing so, Virginia moved slowly toward disunion. Many of the moderates were not far removed from the extremists: they shared the belief that secession was constitutional and that any attempt by Abraham Lincoln to coerce the seceding southern states justified secession.

The emergence of a strong and separate political consciousness in the northwestern part of the state contributed to this Border state identity. The presence of the Northwest suggests a basic contradiction in late antebellum Virginia: though the nation's largest slaveholding state, it also contained a large and increasingly alienated nonslaveholding class of western Virginians who nurtured longstanding grievances against eastern domination. Many of them mounted a critique of eastern slaveholding society, at first obliquely and then, increasingly, more directly. They complained about constitutional discrimination; not until 1851 did the West achieve a fuller measure of political power. Even then, the eastern slavocracy dominated the constitutional system: the new constitution of 1851, for example, preserved slaveholder influence in the state senate and maintained a highly discriminatory taxation system weighted heavily in slaveholders' favor. For northwestern Virginians, the expansion of the railroad system only aggravated their sense of political isolation. They believed, with some justification, that state-supported internal improvements favored the East at the West's expense. Despite the construction of a new Trans-Alleghany system, these East-West railroads linked the Northwest with northern markets rather than with eastern Virginia cities. Politically, the Republican Party made a small but significant showing in the Northwest after 1856, and that region became the most strongly committed to preserving the Union.[13] By 1860-61, many northwestern Virginians, reaching a new political consciousness, offered an aggressive critique of the politics of slavery. Although it is possible to overstate the Northwest's Unionism and to understate the power of partisan allegiances, the region moved in a direction different from the rest of Virginia in the years immediately preceding secession.

As David Brion Davis has recently asserted, the Confederacy's postbellum "ideological victory" had "thoroughly diminished, even somehow removed" slavery as a driving cause behind the Civil War. Scholars should reexamine the political roles of slaves and slavery and reincorporate them into the narrative about the sectional crisis.[14] Indeed, slavery's influence on the political system extended even further. Slaves' rejection of their bondage helped to create a particular sectional dynamic: it was their resistance that fueled slaveholder anxiety, and slaveholder anxieties fostered the political crisis. At several points, slave resistance and slaveholder anxiety converged, and throughout the 1850s slavery remained a focal point for political dialogue. Although the question of abolition rarely entered discourse in Virginia, the extent to which the state and federal governments protected slaveholders remained paramount; both parties attempted to persuade voters that they would better protect the Republic by guarding slaveholders' rights. By the late 1850s, although the antislavery Republicans became prominent in the Northwest, the mainstream political consensus rallied around slavery, and the secession debate became a dialogue about the best methods of protecting the institution.

Roots of Secession | Home

© 2016 The University of North Carolina Press
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
How to Order | Make a Gift | Privacy