Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Preserve Us from Such Democracy

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Preserve Us from Such Democracy

Article excerpt

In March 1861, approximately one month after delegates had assembled in Richmond to debate Virginia's future in the Union, Monongalia resident and local merchant Henry S. Dering wrote to his representative at the convention, Waitman T. Willey. Dering, frustrated by the incessant editorials from the pro-secession Richmond Enquirer that attacked Unionist western delegates, unleashed vitriol toward what he considered Virginia's slaveocracy. "The truth is," he declared, "the slavery oligarchy are impudent[,] boastfully and tyrannical. It is the nature of the institution to make men so." Although numerous slaveholders claimed that Abraham Lincoln's election threatened their conception of self-government, Dering blasted these hypocritical accusations because they conveniently overlooked the antidemocratic government that plagued western Virginia. "Talk about lost rights," he fumed. "[B]etter look at poor Western Va. and her lost rights. Has taxation and representation gone hand in hand[?]" he asked Willey rhetorically. Although Dering declared abolitionism anathema, he asserted that should these slaveholders "persist in their course," residents of northwestern Virginia were prepared to "rise up . . . and throw off the shackles . . . [of] this very Divine Institution . . . [that] has been pressing us down."1

Dering's warning exemplified the mounting frustration expressed by residents living in northwestern Virginia. Northwesterners, having experienced eastern slaveholders' control of the electoral process since the state's inception, believed that electoral politics were antidemocratic and anti- republican.2 Rather than based on majority will, equal representation, and universal white male suffrage-the cornerstones of democracy, as many nineteenth-century citizens professed-Virginia's constitution favored those who owned landed and human property. Strict suffrage requirements, in place until 1851, disenfranchised many nonslaveholders. Virginians' laggard pace democratizing the state government crystallized internal and external perceptions of the Old Dominion as an anomaly among slaveholding states that had adopted a broader definition of a political actor. Northwesterners grew alienated toward this electoral system because of slavery's influence in politics and soon "embraced a particular political identity" marked by, among other indices, a visceral resentment of "special rights for slaveholders."3 This political disenchantment, when filtered through a growing white and multiethnic population, an expanding market economy increasingly tied to northern and western marketplaces, and a cultural emphasis on free white labor, resulted in a manifestation of an ethos that William Link calls "Northwestern exceptionalism."4

This ethos, present before 1850, became fully manifest following the 1850-51 Constitutional Convention.5 Northwestern delegates, encouraged by favorable census returns and an increasingly assertive constituency demanding their political and constitutional rights, seized the opportunity to reform the state constitution and inaugurate a new political era. The convention passed such democratic measures as universal white manhood suffrage, a more equitable allocation of seats in the state legislature, and the popular election of political officials such as governor and lieutenant governor. These changes to Virginia's political framework signaled in many ways a fundamental break from the state's aristocratic past and a move toward a more democratic future.

But the changes wrought by the new constitution failed to signal a clean separation between electoral politics and slavery. As historian Manisha Sinha argues, slaveholding elites in antebellum South Carolina instigated an antidemocratic and antirepublican "counterrevolution of slavery" to solidify slaveholder hegemony and remove the Palmetto State from the Union in I860.6 Elements of this conservative revolution were present earlier, albeit to a much lesser extent, in Virginia. …

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