Henry Wise and the Fool's Errand of Secession
|Virginia Governor Henry S. Wise,|
from unidentified 19th century publication
(West Virginia State Archives)
This past week (Apr. 16), The New York Times' ongoing publication of Civil War sesquicentennial stories featured an article entitled, "Henry Wise's Pistol," by William W. Freehling, a senior fellow at the Virginia Center for Humanities. Freehling is also the author of The Road to Disunion and Showdown in Virginia: The Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union. In this opinion piece, Freehling refers to Henry Wise as the "ultra-thin, ultra-fiery" secessionist leader who rallied his "indecisive" state of Virginia toward secession. Armed with a long-barreled "horse pistol," Wise dared any violent opponent of secession to make his play.
|Wise the Hypocrite: |
He seized Harper's Ferry too,
but for all the wrong reasons
Freehling uses Wise's performance at a Virginia secession convention in April 1861 to argue that even though slavery was an issue for the seceding South, it was not the only reason because there was no single "South" at the commencement of the war. According to Freehling, one must consider that the overwhelming numbers of slaves were based in the lower South—South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, "the heart of the black belt, heavy with plantations." Freehling says this was the real "South." In contrast, the northern-most slave states—border states—remained loyal to the Union. Thus, says Freehling, the real contest for secession was centered on the Middle South—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas, where 29.2 percent of the enslaved population was located. According to Freehling, Virginia approached secession inconclusively in the spring of 1861. Virginia itself was divided like the larger, “divided South.” Virginia’s far western region had only five percent of the state’s enslaved population, whereas the far eastern region held forty percent of the state’s enslaved population. In between was the Shenandoah Valley, with sixteen percent of the state’s enslaved population. Freehling says that even after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, almost half of Virginia’s representatives preferred to have the matter of secession determined by popular vote.
Wise served as governor of Virginia from 1856-60, and his determined, belligerent role in regard to the Harper’s Ferry raid marked the end of his term. At the secession convention in April 1861, Wise boasted that despite the end of his term, he had somehow “ordered Virginia militiamen to seize the federal installations at Harpers Ferry Arsenal and Norfolk’s Gosport Naval Yards.” Wise went on to become a Confederate general and well merited the same fate that he had forced upon John Brown, except that he was spared by presidential pardon.
The "Not Only Slavery" Argument, Again
The point of Freehling’s article is found in this conclusion:
In other words, it was not only slavery that drove Virginians — many of them reluctantly — out of the Union. It was also the belief that Lincoln had no right to coerce seceding citizens or to force war on a state. We must not submit, declared one of the Virginia ex-Unionists who converted after Lincoln’s proclamation, “to a tyrannical and overbearing foe that desires to make slaves of you and me.” He spoke for many a reluctant prewar Confederate who became a passionate rebel soldier to protect his homeland (and not just black slavery) from the “invaders.”
Of course, this is just another version of the old “not only slavery” argument for secession. Freehling presents some interesting points, but his argument is superficial and his premise is unproven.
|"States' Rights" in Action|
Obviously, the South was no monolith and Freehling’s point is true at the most obvious level. Clearly the “black belt” of the Deep South was the area most populated by enslaved people. By all accounts, the “Lower South” was the “Africa” into which Brown intended to carry his war; a map taken from Brown’s farm headquarters after the raid illustrated in fine detail that he intended his movement to penetrate and traverse a vast amount of the Lower South with its ample populations of oppressed blacks. It is also true, as Freehling points out, that just as all Southerners were not pro-slavery, not all Southerners were zealous to secede.
On the other hand, Freehling is fudging the issue. It may be that the Deep South states led the way most zealously in secession. Yet Virginia and the other states of the Middle South were not opposed to secession, just as they were not opposed to slavery. Indeed, Freehling is least convincing in his claim that there was no single “South” at the onset of the war. Even though secession melded the Southern states in a manner unprecedented, the South was already defined by both implicit and explicit devotion to black chattel slavery’s existence, extension, and justification. Missouri was a border state with far less slaves than South Carolina, yet its role in igniting the civil war in the Kansas territory was equally as zealous. Virginians may have hesitated to immediately follow South Carolina into the abyss of secession, but this hesitance pertained to strategy, not ideology or devotion. Virginia may have had varying numbers of enslaved people, but the foundational premise of the Old Dominion was pro-slavery and white supremacist. Indeed, this was the foundational premise of the entire South that Freehling denies actually existed prior to 1861, and this is where his argument fails.
To be sure, the North was also white supremacist, but it was resentful of slavery for economic and sociological ("Negrophobia") reasons. For the most part, Northerners did not enter the Civil War to end slavery and win black freedom. But the point of contention is not the North but the South not having existed prior to the Civil War, as Freehling argues in his article. Contrary to his argument, notwithstanding Southern hesitancy, the Middle South and the Lower South were certainly unified throughout the antebellum era in their devotion to black chattel slavery. The propaganda manufactured in Virginia in defense of slavery was as passionate as from anywhere in the Lower South. Indeed, Freehling does not address the depth of pro-slavery unity that characterized the Lower, Middle, and even the Upper South. Contrary to what he argues, this unity presented a well-defined South in 1860 despite internal variations and differences among Southern states.
Only Wise in His Own Eyes
As for Henry Wise, he proved the greatest of hypocrites when he acted outside the law of the state and the nation by seizing the Harper’s Ferry armory without appropriate authority. Interestingly, by his own admission, although he was no longer acting as governor, he seized Harper’s Ferry as a citizen, and thus was qualified to bear the same penalty of hanging. Henry Wise thus personified the hubris and bellicose spirit that possessed the South and ultimately drove it in madness over the cliff of rebellion to destruction.
|On the Right Side:|
JB, the moral antithesis
of Henry Wise
Quite in contrast, John Brown seized the armory and invaded Virginia solely for the purpose of liberating the oppressed. This is the weighty truth that is wearing down the brazen shoulders of Confederate apologists. Those who would seek to justify the South cannot continue to hide behind empty shell game arguments about states’ rights. The South was devoted to keeping black people in chains, and this was the crux of the entire South, even as it was the heart of Southern secession. There is no way around this reality, no matter how sophisticated the argument may be presented otherwise. Regardless of Northern motivations for entering the Civil War, it is clear that the South entered the conflict with malice aforethought and no small amount of planning. Like the ancient Pharaoh, slave masters from Virginia to Georgia had hardened their hearts to the plight of their victims. They were united with one intention: to keep and expand slavery and the rights of the slave master.
A number of New York Times readers sniffed out the same error in Freehling’s essay. I have included them below because they merit attention in exposing the error of Freehling’s thesis:
The proportion of freemen to slaves was not the issue. It was the general white cultural assumption that African Americans not only were inferior to whites, but they ought to be treated as less than human. Whether free or slave, black Americans were treated as though they were slaves. The ones who were legally slaves had no way to escape that treatment, unlike freedmen. So any distinctions between the white treatment of the two classes is trivial. Bayou Houma, Boston.
Just an observation, no scientific analysis, that is, but it seems that scholars from Southern universities, colleges, institutions, have a particular point of view that points to the reason for secession as something other than slavery. The points about the various states and their commitments to slavery are compelling. However, the people of eastern Tennessee were no less "Southern" when they had to be occupied by Confederate forces because of their opposition to the war; and one can't help but feel that this was due to their almost complete lack of involvement in the slave economy. Paul O'Cuana, Florida
Then, as now, those who embrace the thesis of a patriotic resistance to Lincoln's "despotism" allow themselves to be blinded in moral myopia to the larger and more controlling issue of slavery. History's proponents of secession, however "reluctant", deceived themselves and ignored the larger issue. Freehling's article is presumably accurate and is interesting but, whether intentional or not, it allows today's justifiers of secession, just as the argument did in history, to claim moral territory they do not deserve. J. Wes White, Sarasota
A sophisticated effort at special pleading for Virginia as seceding for reasons other than slavery. Yet the Western counties of Virginia seceded from the seceders. If anger at coercion was such a motivator, why were the lower-slaveholding counties uniquely not so angry at being coerced? It seems very strange; "let's secede because we're angry about an invasion that will only happen to us if we secede." Just obfuscation, it seems to me, by the secessionists and the writer. Celebrating Wise's illegal power grab for secession fits right in. Floyd Smith, Oakland