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"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right – a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit." – Abraham Lincoln (from a speech in Congress January 1848)
Regarding the legality of secession: "We do heartily accept this doctrine, believing it intrinsically sound, beneficent, and one that, universally accepted, is calculated to prevent the shedding of seas of human blood. And, if it justified the secession from the British Empire of Three Millions of colonists in 1776, we do not see why it would not justify the secession of Five Millions of Southrons from the Federal Union in 1861." - The New York Daily Tribune, December 17, 1860
How did Virginia, though initially reluctant, come to the point of secession and self defense?
An Historical Timeline.
Virginia, known as "The Old Dominion," was the first established of the thirteen colonies (1607) and birthplace to four of the first five Presidents of the United States. She was in many regards America's leader during the Colonial era, the American Revolution and long after Independence was won. In 1788 Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution with the specific caveat that she was reserving the right - if at any time she deemed it necessary - to resume at any time all powers delegated to the federal government and thus withdraw from the Union. Others states including New York and Rhode Island did the same and the legal right of secession was commonly asserted by both northern and southern states, political leaders and legal scholars right up to the point of the War Between the States. In 1803 certain northern states threatened to secede, in 1814 the New England states very nearly did secede and in the 1840s several northern states were threatening secession again. In fact Abraham Lincoln himself had argued strenuously in FAVOR of the right of states to secede while a member of Congress in 1848.
In 1859 John Brown and his gang of what today would be regarded as terrorists launch a planned, armed assault upon the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia and the United States military arsenal located there. Brown's background includes having those he disagrees with hacked to death and his stated objective is to foment a slave rebellion that will kill every white person in The South. Ironically, the first person murdered by his band of thugs during his invasion of Virginia is a free black man. Brown's gang is overcome in combat by United States Marines and Brown himself is brought to trial, convicted and hung for treason. But it is widely known that he was financed, helped with planning and aided by wealthy, politically active people in the New England states ... people who are never brought to justice. Most people in the North are revolted by Brown's actions. But a very vocal minority, including some newspaper editors and even preachers, proclaim Brown a hero and martyr, even compare him to Christ and cry out for more blood. Psychologically this pushes many in the Deep South to a firm view that the North (which they see as dominated by the "Radical Republicans" of New England) is committed to a course intent on terror and tyranny against them. Once Abraham Lincoln (a Republican) is elected president in November 1860 they are convinced (rightly or wrongly) that they have no choice but to exercise the right of secession to escape the oppression they are certain is to come. Thus South Carolina secedes on December 20th, 1860 to be followed shortly thereafter by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. These seven organize a government known as the Confederate States of America.
Though most people are aware that these seven states of the Deep South seceded between December 1860 and February 1861, few are aware that the states of the "Upper South" remained in the Union until federal coercion forced them to choose between taking part in actions they regarded as unconstitutional, including participating in armed invasion ... or being invaded themselves. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland would all find themselves at this crossroads. Virginia and North Carolina would both be blockaded while still in the Union and Virginia soil would be occupied by federal troops prior to secession. Tennessee and Arkansas would secede in the face of a threat of aggression. Missouri would attempt to stay in the Union - though neutral - but would be quickly invaded, suffering a massacre of civilians in St. Louis before finally seceding. Kentucky would also attempt neutrality but would end up having two state governments (one pro-Union and the other pro-Confederate) and be fought over by both sides. Maryland's officials would be arrested and imprisoned before they could assemble and decide upon a course of action.
The following chronology tracks events influencing Virginia as well as her course of action through the Spring of 1861.
February 4th: Virginia voters elect delegates to a Convention to discuss and make recommendations regarding the question of secession and Virginia's relationship to the Federal government. The great majority of those elected are known as "moderate" and level in their views. Voters also overwhelmingly approved a popular referendum on any decision reached by the convention, thus further guaranteeing that no rash action could be taken. Any decision that departed from the status quo would have to be ratified by popular vote (not by committee, convention or legislature) to take effect. Virginians have made it clear that while serious problems need to be addressed yet the desire of most is to remain in the Union.
March 4th: Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as the 16th president of the United States. (He had been elected in November 1860 with less than 40% of the popular vote (the lowest percentage in US history) and as a purely sectional candidate did not appear on the ballot or receive a single vote in ten southern states.)
April 15th: President Lincoln demands that the remaining states supply 75,000 troops to invade the seven states he deems to be in a state of "insurrection" (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas) which had formed a Confederate government in February and ratified a constitution on March 11th. A letter to Governor Letcher demands a quota of 8,000 soldiers from Virginia for this purpose. Though Letcher had been a Unionist he refuses to accede to the demand as do a number of other governors as the action is held by many to be both unconstitutional and an act of war.
April 20th: Governor Letcher of Virginia makes a call for volunteers to assemble for the defense of Virginia. The next day he issues a proclamation ordering every "armed and equipped volunteer company of artillery, infantry and riflemen in the counties between Richmond and the Blue Ridge, and in the Valley from Rockbridge County to the Tennessee line, to hold themselves in readiness for immediate orders."