Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia

Article excerpt

William A. Link, Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. 387. Cloth $45.00, paper $22.50.

Thomas Jefferson, although a beneficiary of the institution, warned fellow Americans that with slavery the nation had "a wolf by the ears." His death in 1826 saved him from seeing the grip loosened and the ravenous results of civil war. Central to this harsh and futile struggle was his home state of Virginia, fountainhead of founders of the early republic and yet ultimate governmental home of its harshest enemies. Historian William A. Link in Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia traces this complex political evolution from 1850 to the hesitant process of separation in early 1861. Through extraordinary research and careful exposition, Link skillfully intertwines the regional language and political rhetoric of over seventy newspapers and many other primary sources with his historical analysis.

Virginia had the largest slave population in the South, but was one of the last states to secede. Link "examines the interconnection between slavery, slaves, and politics, and the impact that this relationship had on the origins of secession." Those in control generally maintained that slavery was an essential and noble institution, and its opponents in the state were guilty of "moral treason." Free blacks were considered a troubling presence, magnified by the practice of "hiring out" enslaved workers in many urban areas. Although there had been efforts to implement the Jeffersonian solution of sending the free blacks back to Africa or elsewhere, some 60,000 were residing in the state in 1860. Governor Henry Wise, the most important political figure of the 1850s, promoted the idea that all Africans should be identified as slaves, and even directed a secret agent to travel to the North to abduct and arrest the famous runaway and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

In this border state the movement toward "secession" was constant, but not inevitable. The future of slavery had been openly debated in the state in 1830 and 1831, but the "last serious antislavery appeal" was in 1847. "Intrastate sectionalism" was the real issue: the eastern region had half a million slaves (thirty-four counties had a majority slave population), while in the northwest region there were only 8,000. Political conflicts developed over the enumeration of slaves for purposes of representation and taxation. A compromise was reached in the 1850-1851 constitutional convention to allow the House of Delegates to be dominated by the west and the State Senate by the east.

Several factors contributed to Virginia's uniqueness such as the persistence of organized slave resistance. Many slaveowners remembered the urban threat of Gabriel Prosser and his associates in 1800 and the rural terror of Nat Turner in 1831. They considered legal leniency toward rebellious slaves to be a form of "abolitionism." Violations of "racial etiquette" were constant reminders of the uncertainty of the social system. Another annoyance was the relative ease with which slaves could cross the border to northern freedom. …