“An Earthquake”: Lincoln’s First Inaugural, Fugitive Slave Rendition, and Virginia’s Secession

“An Earthquake”: Lincoln’s First Inaugural, Fugitive Slave Rendition, and Virginia’s Secession

[Editor’s Note: This article is adopted from Evan Turiano’s forthcoming  “‘Prophecies of Loss’: Debating Slave Flight During Virginia’s Secession Crisis,” which will appear in the September 2022 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era.

The Virginia secession convention was set into motion on November 15, 1860, barely a week after Lincoln’s election. On February 4, 1861, Virginians went to the polls to elect 152 convention delegates. At first, relatively few Virginians favored secession. Voters rebuked many of the most ardently pro-secession candidates in the February 4 election and only about one-sixth of the elected delegates entered the convention favoring disunion.[1]  Most of the remaining delegates, two out of every three, favored union upon certain conditions.[2] Both of these groups approached their position with a commitment to protecting slavery and, specifically, with an eye toward stopping enslaved people from fleeing toward freedom. Unionists argued that secession would unleash a wave of escapes that could threaten slavery’s future. Secessionists, on the other hand, insisted that freedom seekers already posed a grave threat to slavery, one that Lincoln would only exacerbate as president.

As Virginians debated secession through February 1861, conditional unionists looked anxiously to the incoming administration for signs of concession and conciliation, particularly on the question of fugitive slave rendition. The pivotal moment came on March 4th, when Lincoln addressed a tense, packed crowd at the Capitol’s east portico. Lincoln began with an acknowledgement that the Constitution provided slaveholders with a right “for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves.”[3] For some historians, this has been the critical, sole takeaway from Lincoln’s words on fugitive slave rendition as he assumed the presidency.[4] Instead, proslavery Virginians on both sides of the secession debate heard Lincoln’s message on fugitive slave rendition as a hostile one. Proslavery unionists heard their warnings about the relationship between secession and the forfeiture of constitutional rights clearly echoed. Secessionists, on the other hand, perceived Lincoln’s commitment to maintaining the right to a jury trial for accused fugitives from slavery, one that undermined the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. In the fallout of Lincoln’s speech, Virginia secessionists were able to use Lincoln’s evident hostility to win support for their cause, and to ultimately win disunion in the Old Dominion.

Capital Building in background with a large crowd in foreground of the sepia tone photograph.
“Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861,” from the Benjamin Brown French Photograph collection.

On March 4th, Lincoln addressed states on the fence like Virginia with a clear message: if they seceded, “fugitives, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all.”[5] He had made the same point on the campaign trail before a crowd in Cincinnati in 1859. Speaking through cheers and laughter, Lincoln challenged Southern whispers of secession. “Are you going to build up a wall some way between your country and ours, by which that movable property of yours can’t come over here any more, to the danger of your losing it?” If secessionism was an effort to promote further Northern participation in fugitive slave rendition, Lincoln asked, “When we cease to be under obligations to do anything for you, how much better off do you think you will be?”[6] As if to prove Lincoln’s point, alongside a transcript of the inaugural address, the March 5 edition of the Richmond Daily Whig ran a story about a fugitive from slavery named John Bell. Bell had been in the custody of a US Marshal and was set to sail from New York City to Richmond. He was, instead, forcibly freed by a “mob of negroes and whites.”[7]

While unionists saw their warnings of forfeited rights echoed and their calls for concessions largely ignored, Lincoln’s inaugural address provided secessionists with fuel for their arguments about the uselessness of the Constitution’s fugitive slave protections. Instead of offering a commitment to returning fugitive slaves within the Union, he called the overreach of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law into question and suggested that accused fugitive slaves might deserve equal protection under the Constitution.[8]

Lincoln delegitimized a key premise of the 1850 law by claiming that there remained “some difference of opinion” as to whether the federal government had any constitutional authority to participate in fugitive slave rendition. Furthermore, he asked, “Ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence . . . be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave?” Lincoln went on to suggest that the 1850 law be amended to guarantee that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”[9] In the eyes of secessionists, this, too, amounted to a rejection of fundamental features of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. The Liberator, otherwise critical of Lincoln and his address, recognized that his call for a national protection of Black legal rights in the face of fugitive slave rendition represented something “no other President has yet done.”[10] Many proslavery Virginians were inclined to agree that Lincoln’s messaging was unprecedented. Over the course of March, they came to believe that their best hope for stopping slave flight might lie outside the United States.

Virginia’s proslavery unionists struggled to maintain their position in the face of the broadly negative reception of Lincoln’s address. Convention delegate William C. Wickham wrote to a fellow Virginia Whig, Winfield Scott, a week after the address to complain that it “has had a most unhappy influence upon some of the members of our Convention.”[11] In a letter to his wife, another unionist described the address as “an earthquake” that “embarrassed” the unionist faithful.[12] Those who stayed in the unionist camp tried with limited success to train focus away from the policies Lincoln suggested and toward his threats regarding the forfeiture of constitutional protections that would come with secession. Lincoln’s firm stance, they argued, indicated that slavery in the seceded states would receive no special protections and would in fact face aggression across a newly foreign border.

For secessionists, on the other hand, Lincoln’s firm message proved fortuitous. When slaveholding Virginians read transcripts of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, they understood his discussion of fugitive slave rendition as antagonistic to their property rights. Lincoln’s rejection of these property rights in favor of jury trial protections was, according to one historian, “of far greater significance to conservatives of the upper South” than was his denial of the legal right to secession.[13] The Richmond Daily Whig reflected this concern. “To offset the admission of the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave ‘delivering up,’” the editors explained to their readers, “the President apparently insists upon the guarantee, that Northern citizens (meaning Negro citizens, perhaps?) shall have legislative Protection, South.”[14] Editors at the Daily Whig tapped into a decades-old conflict between the legal rights claimed by African Americans accused of being fugitive slaves and the proslavery desire for an airtight property right. In Lincoln’s call for the privileges and immunities of African American citizens to be protected despite the Fugitive Slave Law, they heard reverberations of a movement at least as old as the Missouri Crisis that had since become a cornerstone of political abolitionism.

Over the course of March 1861, their appeal began to work. Secessionists, still a minority in the state when Lincoln issued his inaugural address, raked in former conditional unionists as that bloc came to believe that concessions—on fugitive slave rendition and otherwise—would not come. For example, Halifax County delegate James C. Bruce began the convention with concerns about the South’s independent economic prospects and a commitment to striking a compromise with the federal government. By late March—while still holding out hope for a compromise—Bruce lamented that since the Prigg v. Pennsylvania decision nearly two decades earlier, fugitive slave rendition had become so impossible that “when a slave escaped, his master looked upon him as much beyond his reach as if he were dead.” This “distinct and solemn violation of the Constitution” was, Bruce had come to realize, just one example of the “the hatred of our Southern institutions and our system of slavery” that was “irradicably ingrafted into the minds of the Northern people,” where, he feared, it “can never be eradicated.”[15] Bruce cast one final bid for unionism on April 4, and by the final vote he had joined the secessionist ranks.[16]

On the eve of secession, Virginia slaveholders were tremendously concerned about the security of their human property and the protection it received from the federal government. During the secession crisis, the question of whether they were more likely to be able to prevent escapes—and reclaim people who fled—inside or outside the Union animated fierce debates. Instead of the concessions proslavery unionists hoped for, Lincoln’s inaugural address struck Virginians as hostile to their peculiar institution. In the inauguration’s wake, secessionist arguments that hostile Northerners rendered constitutional protections worthless began to prevail. Throughout, virtually all proslavery Virginians knew that enslaved people would make political calculations to seize their own freedom.

[1] Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), xvii; William W. Freehling and Craig M. Simpson, ed., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), xi.

[2] Freehling and Simpson, eds., Showdown in Virginia, xviii–xix. On the centrality of anti-slaveholder politics in the secession and formation of West Virginia, see William A. Link, “‘This Bastard New Virginia’: Slavery, West Virginia Exceptionalism, and the Secession Crisis,” West Virginia History 3 (Spring 2009): 37–56.

[3] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy G. Basler, 8 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 4:263.

[4] See, for example: Daniel W. Crofts, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 236–37. For a more nuanced view that considers the limits Lincoln proposed, see Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 158.

[5] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:269.

[6] “Speech at Cincinnati, Ohio,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 3:454.

[7] Richmond Daily Whig, March 5, 1861. For more on Bell, see Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 214–15.

[8] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:262-71.

[9]  “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” Collected Works of Lincoln, ed. Basler, 4:264; For an argument connecting this statement to fugitives from slavery, see James Oakes, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (New York: W. W. Norton, 2021), 116–17.

[10]  Liberator (Boston), March 8, 1861.

[11] William C. Wickham to Winfield Scott, March 11, 1861, in The Lincoln Papers, ed. David C. Mearns (New York: Doubleday, 1948), 2:481.

[12] Henry T. Shanks, The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861 (Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1934), 178.

[13] Dwight Lowell Dumond, The Secession Movement, 1860–1861 (1931; repr., New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968), 260.

[14] “Views of the Press on Mr. Lincoln’s Inaugural,” Richmond Daily Whig, March 7, 1861.

[15] James C. Bruce, March 23, 1861, in George H. Reese, ed., Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861, February 13-May 1, 4 vols. (Richmond: Virginia State Library), 1:241-42.

[16] Donald Gunter, “Bruce, James Coles (1806–1865),” in Encyclopedia Virginia (Charlottesville: Virginia Humanities, 2021), https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/bruce-james-coles-1806-1865/.

Evan Turiano

Evan Turiano is the Macaulay Honors College Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Queens College, CUNY. He received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center, CUNY.

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