Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary


Lori L. Pound

November 27, 1995

History 150W 03

The divisions within the United State during the Civil War are widely known, but the separation began well before the first shots were fired. During the 1840s, the American political system began a major overhaul with new factions forming in various sections of the nation. Since Southerners did not agree with the anti-slavery views of the Whig or Republican parties, they decided to come together under the Democratic party even though some of their ideas conflicted. During this period, most Democrats were working to simply hold the party together, not to enact public policy changes. The Democrats hoped to appeal to Southern states on both sides of the Mississippi River by protecting slavery and also by supporting railroad expansion into the west. The Virginia governors during this period acted in a similar manner by supporting railroads in the western portions of the state and the nation, but most also defended slavery so that they could be seen as Southerners. It is commonly known that all of the people cannot be pleased all of the time. The Democrats should have realized that their game would not last forever and the differing views could no longer be brought together.

For many decades before the Civil War, slavery was considered a way of life in Southern states. One way for Southerners to accept, or rationalize, slavery was to think of society as a hierarchy. This was a hierarchy of social dependencies and work must be forced out of the idle masses in the population. According to this view, a slave was considered to be the most dependent and the most idle, and therefore, more force was necessary to obtain work. The white slaver owners felt that they were helping the black slaves to do something that they would not do by their own accord. Another rationale for slavery was that it saved much of the white population from menial tasks. "As they interpreted republicanism, only the presence of black slaves saved the bulk of Southern whites from that degradation of wage labor that Northern workers tellingly denounced as wage slavery." Many abolitionists in the North could not understand this notion because they felt that slaver treated a moral agent as a piece of property. They saw the need of emancipation, but they knew that to truly free the enslaved blacks, whites would need to accept black equality. The controversy over slavery was but one of issues that divided the North and South. Voters in both sections often appealed to their elected officials and their political parties to protect their interest.

The Democratic party formed under Andrew Jackson during the election of 1828. It is easiest to form a new political party when there has been some type of economic or social crisis that leaves the people wanting change. The economic crisis occurred with the Panic of 1819, which left many Americans with a strong anti-banking sentiment. The debate over whether Missouri should be admitted into the Union as a slave or as a free state provided the party with its social crisis. Southerners became angry when many Northern politicians wanted to control slavery. "Because Southerners considered slavery their exclusive problem, they would not tolerate Northern discussion of it, let alone attacks on it." Since many Southerners felt that more control should be given to the states to regulate its own affairs, they followed the Democratic party. Andrew Jackson hopes were to reduce the power of the national government, which he did in part by holding party conventions to give state and local party members a voice on national issues. The resulting party "was a heterogeneous alliance that cut across the regional, economic, ethnic, and religious lines fragmenting American society."

After its formation, the Democratic party was faced with the dilemma of how to protect the interests of Southern slave-owners without alienating Northern and Western abolitionists. In the 1830s, the abolitionists strengthened in the North and sent many petitions to Congress in hopes of abolishing slavery in the District of Colombia. These abolitionists also were responsible for circulating a large amount of anti-slavery material in Southern states. During this time, "most Southerners had remained in the Democratic party, confident of its ability to stop Northern attacks on slavery." As the United States continued to debate over the issue of slavery, the debates began to filter into, and often divided, the political parties. "As long as traditional economic issues occupied the attention of Democrats, especially in Congress, the party could stand united."

Many states tried to turn away from the issues involving slavery and focus more on issues of expansion or economic importance. "The co-operation of the east in the banking legislation and in the internal improvement schemes desired by the west contributed to political accord." Virginia followed this strategy by discontinuing the development of the James River and Kanawha Canal, and providing large sums of money to the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad instead. Supporting the railroad was one of the easiest ways for Virginia to connect itself to the West. The railroads also proved beneficial to the citizens of Virginia by access to other states within a few hours. Unfortunately, these improvements did not solve all of the problems for Virginia. "But internal changes were so rapid and diverse during these years that permanent political union between the east and the west were rendered impossible."

The Democratic party began to see groups of dissidents form from within the party during the early 1850s. "The action of the Democratic representatives in Congress, in refusing to vote for a resolution declaring the Compromise of 1850 final, drove others from their party."

During the 1850s, the Republican party began its formation, largely as a reaction to the anti-slavery and anti-immigrant movements in the United States. In his book, Political Parties and American Political Development: From the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln, Michael F. Holt suggests:

Some argued that the realignment of the 1850s that culminated in triumph of the Republican party was caused as much by prohibitionism, nativism, and anti-Catholicism as by anti-slavery sentiment and that the Republicans, after absorbing the great majority of Northern Know-Nothings, were as much an anti-Catholic as an anti-slavery party.

William L. Barney presents a different view of the Republican party, in The Passage of the Republic. The Republican party attracted economically rising groups, who felt there must be reform before there would be individual liberation. He also suggests that the Republicans saw slave owners as a group who intended to take away the liberty of the nation by acquiring power and opportunity for themselves.

John B. Floyd, who served as Virginia's governor from 1849 until 1852, was one of many who worked to internally improve Virginia and connect the Commonwealth to the Western states. Upon leaving the office of governor, the Richmond Enquirer commented on his performance.

In the discharge of his high duties, Governor Floyd, as his messages will prove, seemed to have aimed exclusively at the advancement of the best interests of the State, and development of those ample resources with which our glorious old commonwealth has been so richly endowed by nature.

Floyd felt the need for state-supported internal improvements, such as canals and railroads, to attract products from the West and South. He also strongly disagreed with appropriations that served private interests, rather than the good of the Commonwealth. Floyd served a vital role in convincing the South to accept the Compromise of 1850.

The Compromise measures contributed to rescue the Union from the horrors of civil strive--but the firm determined stand taken by Virginia in that hour of peril, contributed greatly to produce that general feeling of respect for the measures of the Compromise, which has resulted in almost universal acquiescence of them by the people of the South.

John B. Floyd's successor as governor was Joseph Johnson, who served from 1852 until 1856. Like Floyd, Johnson stressed the importance of internal development. He felt railroads were, "the promptest and most efficient means to vitalize the abundant resources of the Old Dominion." At the end of his term as Governor, Johnson was praised for his efforts.

Governor Johnson's term of service has been eventful and laborious but he has never once flagged in the discharge of duty or flinched from just responsibility, no matter what garb it was presented.

Henry Alexander Wise worked with the Democratic party from its beginning and advocated the nomination of Andrew Jackson as President. Wise's nomination as the Democratic party's gubernatorial candidate in 1855 indicated the differing views with the party and the state. "Most of the eastern leaders opposed him, but his record in the constitutional convention of 1850-51 on the questions of internal improvements, representation, and education, make him popular with the voters of the west." Wise was pro-southern, but he realized the need to slightly neutralize his views in order to attract western voters. "Under the leadership of Wise, ...a crop of young politicians the radicals set about to make the Democratic party pro-southern and pro-slavery and at the same time to retain Wise's leadership in the west." Without the support of the western portion of the state, Wise would have probably lost the nomination to Shelton F. Leake, who had received support from the Piedmont and the Valley. Wise did, however, go on to win the election for governor and served during the very volatile time immediately before the Civil War. "Governor Wise's gubernatorial term was admirably conducted, but the ship of state, which had long been sailing tranquilly on, was now about to enter dark and stormy waters."

Slavery was an important issue to John Letcher during much of his political career. During his campaign for governor, Letcher defended his anti-slavery views against his challenger William L. Goggin, who received much of the support from slave-holders in the east while Letcher was supported by the west. In 1860, Letcher became Governor of Virginia and was given the task of steering Virginia through the hazards of the Civil War. He realized the difficulty of this task from the beginning. The Richmond Enquirer reported his first message to the Legislature. "'There can be no peace for Virginia and the South in the Union, as long as the question of slavery is the foot-ball of political parties.'" Slavery proved to be a difficult issue for Letcher. "The eastern prints, especially the Richmond Enquirer, denounced Letcher as an abolitionist and a freesoiler." Letcher defended himself and his favor of the abolition of Negro slavery in many of the western Virginia newspapers.

During the mid-1800s, the United States experienced changes on many fronts. Because of the many varying viewpoints on issues such as slavery and western expansion, many differing factions formed within each political party. Even though the members had conflicting ideas, the parties felt the need to remain united because they did not no what other organization there was to belong to. This can be seen in the Democratic party through the governors of Virginia. Instead of issuing a direct party platform, these governors did whatever was necessary to please the different groups within the state. Most all governors felt the need to appeal to votes in the western portion of the state by supporting railroads and other internal improvements. A few governors, like John Letcher, were even bold enough to oppose slavery in order to attract the voters of the west. Even though the governors had different views and ideas, they shared the common goal of serving the best interests of Commonwealth of Virginia.


Ambler, Charles Henry. Sectionalism in Virginia: From 1776 to 1861. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1910.

Barney, William L. The Passage of the Republic. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1987.

Holt, Michael F. Political Parties and American Political Development: From the Age of Jackson to the Age of Lincoln. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Johnson, Paul E., Gary J. Miller, John H. Aldrich, et. al. American Government: People, Institutions, and Policies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Richmond Enquirer, January 6, 1852.

Richmond Enquirer, January 1, 1856.

Richmond Enquirer, January 10, 1860.

Smith, Margaret Vowell. Virginia, 1492-1892, A History of the Executives. Washington, D.C.: W. H. Lowdermilk & Co., 1893.