Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Clarksburg Call

William W. Freehling's and Craig M. Simpson's highly recommended book Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union draws a direct line from the extra-legal end of the Virginia secession convention to the first stirrings of the new state of West Virginia.

On April 17, 1861 – even before the convention had adopted a resolution in favor of secession – former governor Henry A. Wise “ascended to the podium,” “placed his huge horse before him,” and announced to the delegates that, as he spoke, Virginia troops were moving on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the navy yard at Norfolk. “There is a probability that blood will flowing at Harpers Ferry before night.”

Unionists led by John Brown Baldwin of Staunton, Augusta County, in the Shenandoah Valley, protested these actions as an unconstitutional usurpation. The people of the State of Virginia, Baldwin pointed out, had not authorized secession until the convention had voted for it and the people had then ratified that decision at the polls:
But, sir, I am speaking here as the representative of the people in a constitutional government, in regard to an act which the people themselves, by a majority of 60,000, directed should not be consummated without their voice at the polls; and I say that to consummate this act in defiance of the solemn action of the sovereign people of Virginia, I care not how patriotic the impulse, . . . is in derogation of the sovereign rights of the people of Virginia, who have appointed to settle it at the polls.
Confronted with a fait accompli, the delegates passed an ordinance of secession that same day by a vote of 88 to 55 and set May 23, 1861 as to date for a popular vote on whether to ratify it. Even so, Baldwin continued to object:
I understood from the gentleman from Princess Anne [Mr. WISE], today that an unauthorized expedition has been instructed to seize upon the armory at Harpers Ferry. If that be true, and that act is ratified by the Governor of the State, those persons engaged in it are acting in violation of the rights of the people of this State; and the Governor, in ratifying and adopting this act, is acting in violation of the Constitution of the State . . . [and] the rights of the people. . . . If this Convention adopts that unauthorized act, . . . the people of this State . . . [cannot decide] a question which they have reserved for their own decision.
Baldwin, ironically, ultimately chose to side with his native state. His protests, however, found expression in less than a week in a resolution known as the Clarksburg Call. Freehling and Simpson recount that, “Upon reaching home, [Harrison County delegate] John Carlile wrote the first document in the second Virginia revolution of the week.” According to newspaper reports, “At a large and enthusiastic meeting of from 1,000 to 1,200 of the citizens of Harrison county, assembled at the Court House upon a notice of forty-eight hours, on Monday, April 22, 1861,” and adopted “the following preamble and resolutions . . . without one dissenting voice.” I have broken down the “whereas” clauses into separate paragraphs to make them more readable and have bolded the key language incorporating Baldwin's argument:
WHEREAS, The Convention now in session in this State, called by the Legislature, the members of which had been elected twenty months before said call, at a time when no such action as the assemblage of a convention by legislative enactment was contemplated by the people, or expected by the members they elected in May, 1859, at which time no one anticipated the troubles recently brought upon our common country by the extraordinary action of the State authorities of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, has, contrary to the expectation of a large majority of the people of this State, adopted an ordinance withdrawing Virginia from the Federal Union: and

whereas, by the law calling said Convention, it is expressly declared that no such ordinance shall have force or effect, or be of binding obligation upon the people of this State, until the same shall be ratified by the voters at the polls,: and

whereas, we have seen with regret that demonstrations of hostility, unauthorized by law, and inconsistent with the duty of law-abiding citizens, still owing allegiance to the Federal Government, have been made by a portion of the people of this State against the said Government: and

whereas, the Governor of this Commonwealth, has, by proclamation, undertaken to decide for the people of Virginia, that which they have reserved to themselves, the right to decide by their votes at the polls, and has called upon the volunteer soldiery of this State to report to him and hold themselves in readiness to make war upon the Federal Government, which Government is Virginia's Government, and must in law and of right continue so to be, until the people of Virginia shall, by their votes, and through the ballot-box, that great conservator of a free people's liberties, decide otherwise: and

whereas, the peculiar situation of Northwestern Virginia, separated as it is by natural barriers from the rest of the State, precludes all hope of timely succor in the hour of danger from other portions of the State, and demands that we should look to and provide for our own safety in the fearful emergency in which we now find ourselves placed by the action of our State authorities, who have disregarded the great fundamental principle upon which our beautiful system of Government is based, to wit: "That all governmental power is derived from the consent of the governed," and have without consulting the people placed this State in hostility to the Government by seizing upon its ships and obstructing the channel at the mouth of Elizabeth river, by wresting from the Federal officers at Norfolk and Richmond the custom houses, by tearing from the Nation's property the Nation's flag, and putting in its place a bunting, the emblem of rebellion, and by marching upon the National Armory at Harper's Ferry; thus inaugurating a war without consulting those in whose name they profess to act; and

whereas, the exposed condition of Northwestern Virginia requires that her people should be united in action, and unanimous in purpose - there being a perfect identity of interests in times of war as well as in peace - therefore, be it

Resolved, That it be and is hereby recommended to the people in each and all of the counties composing Northwestern Virginia to appoint delegates, not less than five in number, of their wisest, best, and discreetest men, to meet in Convention at Wheeling, on the 13th day of May next, to consult and determine upon such action as the people of Northwestern Virginia should take in the present fearful emergency,

Resolved, That Hon: John S. Carlile, W. Goff, Hon. Chas. S. Lewis, J. Davis, Lot Bowen, Dr. Wm. Dunkin, W. E. Lyon, Felix Sturm, and James Lynch be and are hereby appointed delegates to represent this county in said Convention.

J. W. Harris, Sec'y.


  1. I find it ironic that the very people who railed at the Richmond Convention about the usurpation of the rights of the people of Virginia, would then themselves turn around and usurp the rights of the people of west Virginia. The Lt. Governor of the Restored Govenment of Virginia in Wheeling, Daniel Polsley, stated-

    "If they proceeded now to direct a division of
    the State before a free expression of the people could be had, they would do a more despotic act than any ever done by the Richmond [Secession] Convention itself". (How West Virginia Was Made, pg. 230)

    Why did the Unionists move from Clarksburg to Wheeling? Because they didn't feel safe even in Harrison County. In 1985 the original poll books for Harrison County on the May 23 1861 secession vote were found in storage at WV University. A tabulation of the recorded votes was surprising. Instead of confirming what everyone had believed for 124 years, that Harrison County had voted 1,691 to 694 against the secession ordinance, it showed a vote of 1,022 for secession, and 1,031 against. A few poll books containing several hundrd votes were not found, so we will never know exactly how Harrison County voted, but Harrison County was not nearly as Unionist as everyone had supposed, and possibly even secessionist.

    West Virginia history is a muddle, and the recent spate of books on Unionism in the South has not helped clear the record, it has indeed deepened it.

  2. bobilee,

    Thanks for your comment. I've sent you an email enclosing an article on West Virginia that you may find interesting.


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