Thursday, March 10, 2011

Alexandria's Delegate: Unionist for All the Wrong Reasons

Alexandria County sent Unionist George William Brent to the Virginia Convention on February 4, 1861. As the Convention met and debated in Richmond, Brent sought a compromise to keep the Union together and avoid civil war. A resolution he introduced on February 20, 1861 called on the Convention to support the Crittenden Compromise or "any other plan of conciliation equivalent thereto, which has been, or may be hereafter offered, by which harmony may be restored between the people of the different States, and the Union perpetuated." Brent's opposition to secession was not based on any deep-seated concerns over the constitutionality of leaving the Union. In fact, by his own admission, Brent firmly believed in the right of states to secede. However, Brent saw secession as folly mainly because it would lead to the demise of slavery. In his view, preservation of the Union was the best way to ensure the preservation of slavery.

George William Brent (courtesy of

In a lengthy speech to the Convention on March 8, 1861, Brent laid out the reasoning behind his position. He first challenged the assumption that slavery was the main driver of South Carolina's decision to secede. As he alleged:

[I]t has been more a desire to relieve herself of this system of protective tariffs than for protection of the institution of slavery, which has animated her in her political course.
Brent believed that upon a closer examination, arguments for secession based on slavery could not withstand scrutiny. He disputed that the perceived Republican threat to the extension of slavery into U.S. territories was much of a threat at all:
The constitutional right [to own slaves] is valuable and ought to be maintained, but I would ask how far is it available as a question of practical statesmanship? The absolute right is one thing, but the practicability of its exercise is another. In that view I take the ground that it has little real, practical value.

We have in the first place no territory belonging to the United States into which slave labor can profitably go. It will never go into any Territory where it is not profitable
Brent also doubted that the South had the reserve of slaves to spare for the expansion westward:

The truth is, that the South has no slaves to go there. The South has yet vast and valuable cotton lands unoccupied, and the demand upon the slave labor of the South is so great that it is inadequate to meet it.
Brent saved his harshest criticism for those who saw secession as a means to deal with the fugitive slave issue. He observed that the states of the Deep South had little to worry about in the first place, given the buffer of border states like Virginia that could prevent escaped slaves from easily reaching free soil. He then explored the fallacy of the argument linking secession to a resolution of the fugitive slave problem:
But we are told that secession will remedy the escape of our slaves. In what manner? What is the remedy proposed? We have been told. . . that we could establish along the border, a cordon of military posts to intercept the fugitive. Mr. President, the remedy is worse than the disease. You would establish in the midst of the border States, within their very heart a standing army dangerous to the liberties and freedom of the people, and which would entail upon us for its support and maintenance a cost far greater than the value of the slaves lost. Such a policy would invite the establishment of corresponding military posts along the line of the free border States, and strifes and collisions would inevitably ensue. And, finally, Mr. President, the remedy would be ineffectual, for experience has demonstrated that in all countries where no natural barriers intervene, large standing armies have proved ineffectual to resist the escape of fugitives from justice, or the operations of the smuggler. But what would be the effect of secession upon the escape of fugitive slaves? Secession would relieve the Northern States from all constitutional obligations of duty to return our fugitive slaves. It would relieve the negro-stealer from all legal and constitutional restraints, and it would give a secure and safe asylum upon our borders for the escape of the fugitive. As has been well said by some member upon this floor, it would bring Canada down to our very doors. . . .
I think, then, that the evil in the matter of escaped fugitive negroes will be aggravated by secession rather than diminished. (emphasis added.)
Brent rightly predicted that secession would lead to bloodshed and the end of slavery:

I, for one, believe that a peaceful separation of these States cannot be effected. The interests are too great and too pervading to be snapped suddenly asunder without causing irritation, bitterness, strife and civil war. . . . 

If this Union is to be involved in war, the institution of slavery will vanish from our midst. The perpetuity of that institution depends upon peace and upon repose. Let civil war once sound its horrid tocsin in this land, and slavery is at once ended. (emphasis added.)
Brent, hearkening back to his own resolution, called on the delegates to find a solution to the current crisis:

Let, then, Virginia, Mr. President, strive vigorously to remove all causes of discontent between the two sections of the country. . . .
Let her . . . call a conference of the border States. Let them determine upon such amendments to the Constitution as may be deemed necessary for the protection of the South. I care not whether they are the Crittenden amendments, or any other amendments equivalent to them. Let her propose them as the ultimatum upon which the settlement of the questions at issue between the two sections is to be adjusted.
But Brent then warned that:

. . . no attempt should be made, on the part of the Federal Government, to coerce and subjugate the States that have seceded from the Union. Recognizing, as I have always done, the right of a State to secede, to judge of the violation of its rights, and to appeal to its own mode for redress, I could not uphold the Federal Government in any attempt to coerce the seceded States to bring them back into the Union.
Brent concluded by declaring his ultimate allegiance to his state, above all else:

My lot is cast with that of Virginia; come weal, come woe. Beneath her soil repose the remains of those who gave me existence, and of my children, and when my own journey of life shall have been run, my prayer will be that I too may rest in her bosom.
Brent’s Unionist views are disconcerting given their reliance on a pro-slavery rationale. Among Southerners, however, he was in a minority. Those who supported secession distrusted Lincoln and the Federal government to protect the existence of slavery. In their minds, the only way to ensure the protection of their “property” was to leave the Union altogether. Brent did not buy this argument and trusted that the Union and Constitution would function to protect the “peculiar institution.”

In the end, Brent’s speech failed to convince the delegates, who approved an Ordinance of Secession on April 17. Brent voted against the Ordinance, but remained loyal to Virginia, just as he said he would. Brent was soon commissioned as an officer of the 17th Virginia and would later go on to serve Generals Braxton Bragg and P.G.T. Beauregard in the Western Theater.


Richard said...

The book "Creating a Confederate Kentucky" argues in the first chapter that one of the reasons Kentucky remained in the Union was that some politicians argued that remaining in the Union was the best way to protect slavery. (Then, when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced and African Americans accepted into the Union army, at least some Kentuckians felt betrayed and thus Kentucky "joined the Confederacy after the Civil War" as they say.)

I think Robert Moore had a post making a similar point at Cenantuas blog a few weeks ago too, so perhaps this kind of sentiment was more common - at least in the border regions - than we may realize.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for shedding additional light on this topic. I agree that this may have been a more common sentiment that we generally realize. In the Deep South, such thinking was certainly in the minority considering that secession won the day. However, in Kentucky, and possibly other Border States, it isn't difficult to see how many citizens may have shared Brent's views. In Virginia, it seems that Ft. Sumter and its aftermath had more persuasive force than anything Brent could have said. I also find it interesting that Brent voted against the Ordinance even though he had already started seeing signs of the very Federal "coercion" he condemned.