Even as the Washington and Montgomery Conventions carried on with their respective business, another notable gathering started in Richmond, Virginia, on February 13, 1861. Though Virginia had initiated the D.C. meeting at the Willard Hotel in a last-ditch attempt to save the Union, other leaders in the state were pushing for secession and their sentiments led to yet another convention in Richmond to consider it. The states of the nascent Confederacy were eager for Virginia to join their new nation. South Carolina sent a commissioner to represent the state in Richmond and influence Virginia toward secession. The commissioner’s name was John S. Preston.
On February 19, 1861, 150 years ago today, Preston addressed the Virginia Convention. He ostensibly explained South Carolina’s grievances that led to its secession, but of course Preston was also trying to build momentum toward Virginia making the same decision. His argument centered on the urgent need of preserving the slave system the two states shared.
Preston’s speech was lengthy but he essentially argued the non-slaveholding states had: 1) prevented the slave states from expanding into their fair share of the frontier; 2) forced slave owners though the tariff to bear an unfair share of federal taxes; 3) failed to perform their constitutional duty to apprehend fugitive slaves and had actively obstructed the efforts of others to that purpose; 4) incited the slaves through the abolition movement to “arson and murder”; 5) conspired to abolish slavery with increasing zealotry and violence.
This summary cannot communicate the clear anxiety conveyed by John S. Preston. But one representative passage that does. “South Carolina has 300,000 whites and 400,000 slaves,” Preston stated. “The whites depend on their slaves for their order of civilization and their existence. Twenty millions of people, with a powerfully organized Government, and impelled by the most sacred duties, decree that this slavery must be exterminated. I ask you, Virginians, is right, is justice, is existence, worth a struggle?“
John S. Preston’s anxiety is far from unique. Even as they depended on them, white Southerners deeply feared African Americans, especially in the Lower South where the concentrations of slaves tended to be higher than in the Upper South (South Carolina in particular with its black majority). Susan O’Donovan, writing in yesterday’s Disunion blog in the New York Times discusses slave communication networks in the prewar South, which conveyed orally their interest in current events especially as they affected them. Whites had some inkling of these networks, O’Donovan indicates, and feared them.
Speaking of large groups of slaves hired from their owners to work on railroad construction crews, Susan O’Donovan discusses the observations of a Georgia planter who distrusted bringing so many slaves together from across the region, even if it was to work on useful infrastructure projects. She writes:
Indeed, protested a Georgia slaveholder named Richard Lyon, large operations that gathered thousands of slaves who were strangers were nothing less than “regular convention[s] in which all the negroes … will be abley & fully represented.” Lyon cringed when he saw slaves on the go. They were the stuff of a slaveholder’s nightmare: the “Tackeys among us,” said one in reference to the 18th-century Jamaican rebel. Out-and-about slaves talked too much, listened too much, learned too much and remembered too much. But most of all, Lyon knew, the slaves on those crews would sooner or later go home, “their minds inflamed by the vicious with false & mischievious notions … Can any sensible man doubt the result?” asked Lyon only half rhetorically.
Susan O’Donovan then asks, “Should we respect Richard Lyon’s anxieties?“ Historians should certainly take them seriously because they appear to have propelled the South’s drive to secession. Both Richard Lyon and John S. Preston clearly exhibit a manifest fear of the slaves. Preston, in particular, believed that the slave system and white civilization in the South could not survive without the unconditional support from the central government. Only a friendly central government with its military muscle could allay their fear of the slaves. If the government in Washington, D.C. would shortly fall into the hands of men they considered hostile to slavery, better to form a central government of their own because many white Southerners sincerely believed their lives depended on it.
Their fear also demonstrates how little white Southerners truly understood the slaves. But that is a story for another time.
To read the full-text of John S. Preston’s speech to the 1861 Virginia Convention, please visit <this page> on the Documenting the American South website at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.