Secession in Virginia and the Crisis of the Union: The 1861 Convention

Much has been asserted about Virginia’s declaration of secession in 1861, including assertions about the motives of the delegates to the state convention who voted on the resolution.

I have been researching this topic for several months, and I have both facts and interpretations to offer. My sources are the 1860 Census of the United States and a pamphlet entitled Virginia’s Decision: The Story of the Secession Convention of 1861, issued by the Virginia Historical Society.

First the facts about 1861 Convention. The convention was called by the legislature during a special session in January 1861. It was elected on February 4, and convened on February 13. There were 152 delegates, elected from 121 districts. There were 93 single member districts, 25 two member districts, and 3 three member districts.

The districts were nearly all counties or groups of counties. The cities of Richmond, Petersburg, and Norfolk were represented separately from the surrounding counties. Also, there was a district formed of part of Lee and Scott Counties, in addition to delegates from Lee County and Scott County separately.


My Census data is for counties, so for purposes of analysis I have made the following consolidations:

  • Richmond City with Henrico County,
  • Petersburg with Dinwiddie County,
  • Norfolk City with Norfolk County, and
  • Lee and Scott Counties; into one three-member district.

Also, McDowell and Buchanan Counties are not listed as represented by any delegate, so they have been omitted (their total population was only 4,328).

The distribution of members and population between present-day Virginia and West Virginia was as follows:

Members Population White Slave Free Col Slaveholders
VA 105 1,219,629 691,867 472,494 55,269 48,523
WV 47 376,688 355,544 18,371 2,773 3,575
Total 152 1,596,317 1,047,411 490,865 58,042 52,098

The ratio of members to white population was about the same for both areas:

  • 1 to 6,589 in VA
  • 1 to 7,565 in WV

In individual districts, the ratio ran from 1 to 2,589 to 1 to 13,547. The ratios to total population were 1 to 11,589 for VA, 1 to 10,484 for WV. In individual districts the range was from 1 to 3,272 to 1 to 20,797.

The vote on declaring secession was taken on April 16, and was 88 to 55 in favor, with 9 abstentions. The Virginia pamphlet records the names of the delegates from each district and their individual votes.

The geographical distribution of the votes: 77 to 23 in VA, 11 to 32 in WV.

Within VA, the 5 delegates from counties bordering Maryland (excluding those on the broad lower Potomac) voted nay. Another 11 nays were cast by delegates from the Shenandoah Valley and Allegheny Mts. The remaining 7 nays from VA were scattered.

The 5 delegates from the southern end of WV all voted aye; the other 6 ayes from WV were scattered.

I have calculated the populations ‘represented’ by the aye and nay votes. In some multimember districts, both aye and nay votes were cast, or a delegate abstained. In these districts I have allocated the population proportionally.

  Aye Nay
Total 1,017,597 490,692
White 576,144 412,479
Black 441,453 78,213
Slaveholders 39,336 9,708

This table indicates that districts with large slave populations and many slaveholders produced aye votes. Delegates from the 39 districts with the smallest proportion of white population (up to 51.87%) voted 41-0 for secession with 3 abstentions.

At the other of the scale the result was not so clear cut. Among the 16 delegates from the 13 districts that were 98% white, the vote was 3-13; among the 45 from the 38 districts that were 90% white, the vote was 16-27 with 2 abstentions.

A similar pattern appears when the ratio of slaveholders to the white population is examined. (I know there were a few black slaveholders, but I have no data on the race of slaveholders. And I believe the number of black slaveholders was insignificant anyway.)

   % of slaveholders Districts Delegates Aye Nay Abstain
 <1% 25 30 10 20 0
1% – 5% 39 55 25 26 4
5% – 10% 21 32 20 9 3
10%+ 32 35 33 0 2

Bear in mind this is the percent of slaveholders in the total white population, including women and minors.

This data shows two things, IMHO.

  • First, there was a very strong correlation between slavery and secessionism. Where slaves and slaveholders were most predominant, secessionism was rampant and Unionism was non-existent. Slaveholders were not an actual numerical majority in these areas, but where their numbers exceeded a certain threshhold level their attitudes were in complete control. This group was the primary force behind secession, and their motivation was the protection of slavery.
  • Second, there was also some support for secessionism even where there were few slaves or slaveholders. Apparently there was a body of whites, who were not slaveholders nor their neighbors or kin, who supported secession for other reasons, such as the doctrine of state sovereignty.

This group was much smaller than the slavery-driven secessionists, but it was an important part of the pro-secession vote. The exact size of it is not clear, because there were very few districts with fewer than 100 slave owners. Nearly all the delegates were “notables”, men of substance. Even those who did not own farm laborers might own personal servants. I have not been able to determine how many were slaveholders, but it seems very likely that non-slaveholders would be chosen only where slaveholders
were very few in number. Only 9 of the delegates who voted for secession came from districts with fewer than 100 slaveholders.

The Virginia pamphlet also contains a narrative of the events surrounding the convention by historian Benjamin Hillman, and texts of the “Final Plan of the Washington Peace Conference” and of a proposed Thirteenth Amendment devised by the convention’s Federal Relations Committee.

These texts make it very clear that the issue which created the secession crisis was slavery. The narrative mentions Gov. Letcher’s opening address to the special session. Letcher called for six guarantees: the repeal of ‘personal liberty laws’, protection of slavery in the District of Columbia, opening of all territories to slavery, no interference in the interstate slave trade, strict suppression of publications containing incitements to slave insurrection, and no  anti-slavery federal appointees in the South.

“This much Virginia had to have before she would stay in the Union”, Hillman adds at this point. This to me is a very telling comment: at this time, January 1861, Virginia, in his opinion was already determined on secession if the slavery issue was not resolved in the South’s favor. In fact Virginia’s demands were not quite so broad. The proposed Thirteenth Amendment barred slavery from territories north of the Missouri Compromise line. OTOH it created an array of protections for slavery, including a requirement that any further amendments regarding slavery be ratified by all states.

The precise attitude of the delegates is not clear now; indeed it was not clear then. The convention did not vote for secession until after Lincoln’s call for troops. But neither did the convention as a group nor the delegates individually state what other conditions could control a secession vote. A large body of Virginia opinion was unconditionally secessionist. Gov. Letcher was criticized in 1860 for having a salute to the Union fired on the Fourth of July! About 40 of the delegates were of this group, according to Hillman.

Another large block of delegates were “conditional” Unionists. This group, which I estimate at about 50, represented the ‘swing vote’, which opposed secession until after Sumter. Then they changed position and their votes passed the secession resolution.

Some of these groups were, apparently, voted for secession because of Lincoln’s call for troops, i.e. they objected to “coercion”. But this element amounted, IMHO, to no more than 10-12 delegates. Others supported the Union on the condition of a pro-slavery resolution of the various slavery-related controversies. They opposed secession as long as there appeared to be any chance of an acceptable
“compromise”. But from the beginning, they were ready for secession if such a resolution did not occur.

One pointer to this is a resolution made by the legislature when it called the convention. This resolution stated that if efforts to resolve of “the unhappy differences between the two sections of the country shall prove to be abortive,” then Virginia should join the rest of the South. (See Bruce Catton, The Coming Fury, pp. 196-197.)

In other words, if Lincoln et al did not make some ‘compromise’ that would convince the Deep South to revoke its acts of secession, Virginia would secede too. This position was founded entirely on sand, of course. The Deep South secessionists were not interested in concessions; they regarded secession as both welcome and irrevocable. And Lincoln was determined not to ‘buy’ acceptance of his presidency with surrender of the principles of his campaign.

The Virginia convention ignored these inconvenient facts as long as possible. Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops made it impossible.

My conclusions are as follows:

  • While the apportionment of delegates to the convention was very inconsistent, there is no evidence of gerrymandering or deliberate skewing toward one side. Neither Unionists nor secessionists were more likely to have small or large constituencies.
  • Delegates from the areas where slaveholding was most widespread were nearly all secessionist.
  • Delegates from areas with the least slaveholding were predominantly Unionist, but some supported secession.
  • Most of the delegates accepted it.