“like a fire bell in the night”

—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Holmes, 1820


Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Holmes, 22 April 1820. Bequest of Paul Mellon  MSS 11619

Writing to Holmes, a senator from Maine, Jefferson voices his fears that the 1820 Missouri Compromise—which temporarily maintained the balance between slave and free states—would lead the nation on the path to civil war.

The compromise, which Jefferson perceived as an infringement on states’ rights, “like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.” He observes that a solution is elusive: “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” In closing, Jefferson expresses his regret that

I am now to die in the belief the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 ... is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.


James Monroe, Letter to William B. Giles, 4 February 1802.
C. Venable Minor Endowment Fund  MSS 13915

Monroe, serving as governor of Virginia, writes to state congressman Giles about the General Assembly’s recent session: “[S]everal incidents occurr’d of a nature unusual here, such as an attempt to promote a separation of the western from the eastern part of the state, by meetings of several members of the former description.” Virginia’s 1776 constitution, which limited voting rights to wealthy white men and counted three-fifths of the slave population toward General Assembly representation, placed the western portion of the state—which had fewer wealthy landowners and fewer slaves—at a significant disadvantage. Western Virginians’ dissatisfaction remained an issue that was not meaningfully addressed until a new constitution was adopted in 1851.

New constitution, etc. adopted by the Virginia Convention, August 1, 1851. [Richmond, Va., 1851]
Gift of Phi Beta Kappa  JK3925 1851 .A75 1851a

As a sop to western delegates, the constitutional convention extended voting rights to “every white male citizen of the Commonwealth, of the age of twenty-one,” whether or not he held property. Expanding the franchise helped to offset slightly the imbalance in representation between the Commonwealth’s eastern and western regions. The concessions eased sectional tensions within the state only temporarily.

The convention also tightened restrictions on free African Americans by requiring them to leave the state within 12 months of emancipation or be re-enslaved. The constitution also forbade the General Assembly from freeing slaves, effectively preventing slavery’s abolition within the Commonwealth.

Richard Parker, John Brown trial record, Jefferson County, Va., 1859.
Paul Mellon Bequest  MSS 11634

Abolitionist John Brown vehemently opposed slavery and sought to mount an armed insurrection that would end it. He organized an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry (in present-day W.Va.) in order to equip slaves with firearms and ignite an uprising that would spread across the South. On October 16, 1859, he and 21 men, black and white, raided the U.S. Armory at Harpers Ferry. Brown’s plan failed; he was captured, and tried and hung for treason. On display are the handwritten notes of Richard Parker, the Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Parker who presided at Brown’s trial.

Brown’s raid pushed the nation closer to war. Some Northern abolitionists considered Brown a martyr; Southerners, fearing an increasingly aggressive abolition movement, began some military preparations.

Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, The partisan leader. Richmond, Va.: West & Johnston, 1862.
AB v.30

First published pseudonymously in 1836, this futuristic novel by Virginia writer Tucker imagined a world 13 years into the future, in which several Southern states seceded to create a Southern Confederacy. The plot concerns Virginians working to bring the state into this Confederacy. Recognized as a valuable document for explaining the forces that led to secession, it was reissued by both Northern and Southern publishers during the Civil War. The 1861 New York edition, published under the title A key to the disunion conspiracy, became a bestseller.


Johnson's Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. [New York?]: Johnson & Browning, [1862?]
Elizabeth Cocke Coles Fund  G3791 .S5 1862 .J6

This map shows the boundaries of Virginia as they existed at the onset of the Civil War, before the creation of West Virginia.

In contrast to eastern Virginia’s greater wealth and reliance on slavery for its agricultural economy, the western portion of the state had fewer landowners and slave holders; its coal and iron industries employed free labor. These long-standing socioeconomic and political differences divided the state sharply as the nation moved closer to war. When Virginians voted on the Ordinance of Secession in April 1861, nearly two-thirds of the votes against secession would come from northwestern Virginia. Delegates from these counties would spearhead the formation of West Virginia.

Austin Steward, Twenty-two years a slave, and forty years a freeman: Embracing correspondence of several years, while president of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West. Rochester, NY: W. Alling, 1857.
Gift of D. M. Baldwin  E444 .S842 1857

Antebellum slave narratives were widely read by abolitionist audiences. Steward’s autobiography, first published in 1857, went through four editions in 10 years. Steward recounted the brutality of day-to-day life for enslaved people on the Prince William County, Va., plantation where he spent his boyhood in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He escaped to freedom after his master moved his household to upstate New York. Steward later emigrated to Canada to join the Wilberforce Colony in Ontario, which was established by formerly enslaved African Americans.

Eastham Jordan, Runaway slave broadside. [Virginia, March 1861]
Associates Endowment Fund  Broadside 1861 .J67

Rappahannock County, Va., served as a major thoroughfare for Union and Confederate troops alike during the Civil War. For the enslaved man Albert, it was the starting point for another attempt at freedom, just a month before the start of the conflict. In this broadside offering a $50 reward, Albert’s owner, Eastham Jordan, notes the likelihood that Albert is heading towards Washington, D.C., to which he had fled on a previous occasion.

Daniel Decatur Emmett, Manuscript of “Dixie’s Land,” in a collection of Emmett’s “walk-rounds” for Bryant’s Minstrels, 1859-1868.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature  MSS 7987

Recognized today as the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, the song of plantation nostalgia best known as “Dixie” was first performed by the New York blackface troupe, Bryant’s Minstrels. Initially popular only in the North, the song soon caught on with Confederate troops as a marching song. When Robert E. Lee sought to purchase a copy of the sheet music in 1861, he found that it was sold out across Virginia. Despite the song’s Northern origins and its lyrics’ still-contested meanings, “Dixie” became so heavily associated with the Southern Civil War experience that today it is perhaps the most universal symbol of the antebellum South.