On April 17, 1861 – 160 years ago today – Virginia made an important decision for which it still pays the price.
That day Virginia decided to leave the Union.
Technically, a specially elected assembly called the Virginia Convention voted to send a secession referendum to voters, but that referendum a month later was just a formality. Two days after the Convention voted for secession, the Confederate flag fluttered over the state capital of Virginia and a Confederate army was invited to settle in Richmond.
It would have taken a brave man – and then only men voted – to stand up to the public passion for secession. Yet some in this convention stood up and voted against secession. Contrary to popular belief, not all of them came from the western counties of what would become West Virginia.
It is remarkable – one mild word, mind-boggling could be another – that all these years later the causes of the civil war continued to be debated. It was about slavery, some say. No, it was about the rights of the state, say others – as if that were a binary and exclusive choice. It was both, although the main right the southern states wanted to protect was the right to enslave fellow human beings.
We want our story the way we want our politics today – reduced to something the size of a 30-second commercial or maybe a tweet. The story is not like that. The chairman of the convention helps illustrate how complicated and chaotic history can be. He was John Janney, a Loudoun County attorney. In 1831 he had drafted a bill to abolish slavery in Virginia, which apparently failed. Three years later he bought his first slave.