From John Hennessy [Please note: We’ll be going quiet for a few days over the holiday, but will pick up again in its aftermath. A good holiday to all–poke around in the old stuff while we are away.]:
In Fredericksburg, the question of Union or secession was clearly entangled with the issue of slavery. While editorialists did indeed rail about a state’s rights and the “vexing power of the national government,” when they particularized their grievances, they usually pointed toward slavery as the lynchpin upon which the relationship between the government and the South turned. Jesse White of the Weekly Advertiser–the most radical of the local newspapers–was typical:
The institution of slavery in Virginia, is indeed, a most important feature of her progess… [Such] is the parallelism between her prosperity and its utility, that there is no section of the country where political and social relations would be more sadly changed than Virginia by a change in present relations.
Even the rabidly Unionist editor James Hunnicutt, who fought secession long after it had taken place, embraced the justice and necessity of slavery.
Most telling is the fact that when Fredericksburgers selected a delegate to the secession convention, John L. Marye Sr., they selected a man who owned significant property, including fourteen slaves. Nearly two months prior to the election, Marye wrote a letter, published in the local newspaper, that clearly laid out his views on secession and slavery (on the former he was moderate; on the issue of slavery, he was typical).
There is in the North a party of fanatics who are wrought up to phrenzy on the subject of slavery….They do not see that our earliest records refer to slavery as existing and no where treated it as a novelty. They do not see that Christ came upon earth to instruct us in our duty, and finding slavery established, not only did not condemn it, but, on the contrary, explained the relative duties of master and servant…. In all arable countries there were slaves, and slavery continued to exist while it was profitable. The gain of the slave is in doing as little as he can; the gain of the freeman is in doing as much as he can…. It would be well for all parties concerned if they would bear in mind that this question of slavery is a vital one in the South, and there is nothing in the history of the Southern States which would lead to the opinion that they would submit to interference on that subject…..If these good people are really disposed to befriend the slave, they will gain that end much more surely by not making it absolutely necessary for the master to draw tighter the chords of bondage.
This wonderfully concise, articulation of Marye’s views on slavery is, in its sentiments, unremarkable. There was little public dispute about the place of slavery in Southern or Fredericksburg society. The surviving editorials, letters, newspaper accounts, and testimony make clear that the debate in Fredericksburg as it related to secession hinged not on the existence or justice of slavery, but on its protection–and what its loss or limit at the hands of an intrusive Federal government implied for the future of the South. Would slavery be better protected inside or outside the Union?
Marye’s status as a slave owner and his views on slavery were base requirements for his election, and were in themselves not decisive in his lopsided victory (his opponent, William S. Barton, also owned slaves). Rather it was Marye’s conservative views on secession–his argument that the South’s rights and institutions would best be served by remaining in the Union–that garnered him his 2-1 margin in votes. Given the rhetoric of the time, it’s hard to imagine the town selecting someone to make that argument who was not invested in the institution most at risk.