160 years ago today, Wednesday, April 17, 1861, 143 delegates from across the Commonwealth of Virginia crowded into the neoclassical Capitol of Virginia at 10:00am to debate secession from the United States. Six Southern states had already seceded. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas formed the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861, an act that the Federal government, and many others, saw as illegal and an act of rebellion.
The previous day, April 16, 1861, Virginia Governor John Letcher sent the following to U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron in reply to President Abraham Lincoln’s request for volunteer troops to “suppress the rebellion” in the Deep South:
“In reply to this communication, I have only to say that the militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington, for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern States, and the requisition made upon me for such an object, in my judgment, not within the province of the Constitution or the act of 1795, will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and, having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited towards the South.”
Lincoln’s call for volunteers outraged many of the previously pro-Union delegates. Despite a warning by John Janney, president of the convention, that secession would leave the banks of the Potomac River “saturated with blood,” the Virginia Secession Convention, which had previously rejected calls for Virginia to leave the Union by a vote of 88 to 45, reversed itself and voted in favor, 88 to 55. It adopted the following resolution, subject to a popular referendum to be held on May 23, 1861:
To Repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under said Constitution:
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.
Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain that the Ordinance adopted by the people of this State in Convention, on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying or adopting amendments to said Constitution, are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid, is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong to a free and independent State. And they do further declare that the said Constitution of the United State of America is no longer binding on any of the citizens of this State.
This Ordinance shall take effect and be an act of this day when ratified by a majority of the votes of the people of this State, cast at a poll to be taken thereon on the fourth Thursday in May next, in pursuance of a schedule hereafter to be enacted.
Done in Convention, in the city of Richmond, on the seventeenth day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and in the eighty-fifth year of the Commonwealth of Virginia
JNO. L. EUBANK,
Sec’y of Convention.