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John Letcher

Union or Secession
John Letcher (1813–1884). Portrait in State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.
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John Letcher (1813–1884). Portrait in State Artwork Collection, Library of Virginia.
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  • Governor John Letcher's Message
    Governor John Letcher's Message to the General Assembly, January 7, 1861

JOHN LETCHER (1813–1884)

John Letcher (29 March 1813–26 January 1884), member of the Convention of 1850–1851, member of the House of Representatives, and governor of Virginia, was born in Lexington and was the son of William Houston Letcher, proprietor of a general store, and Elizabeth Davidson Letcher. As an adolescent he rejected the devout Methodism of his parents and further frustrated his father by neglecting his studies and evincing a general lack of ambition. After attending classes at Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) during the 1832–1833 academic year, he left to work as a carpenter's apprentice. Before long Letcher developed an intense interest in politics, and his personal goals began to crystallize. Aligning himself with the Democrats, he sought the mentorship of James McDowell, a local party leader who later served as governor of Virginia and member of the House of Representatives, and William Taylor, an attorney who preceded McDowell in Congress. Letcher read law with Taylor and on 6 May 1839 received a license to practice in Rockbridge County. On 14 May 1843, in Rockingham County, Letcher married Mary Susan Holt. Of their eleven children, three sons and four daughters reached adulthood.

In 1838 Rockbridge County Democrats selected Letcher to run for a seat in the House of Delegates, but the county's Whig majority defeated him. The following year McDowell chose Letcher to edit the Lexington Valley Star, a newspaper he established in February to promote Democratic policies and candidates. Letcher wrote editorials in favor of hard money and the subtreasury system while railing against tariffs and federally funded internal improvements. He campaigned energetically for Martin Van Buren during the presidential canvass of 1840. That year, despite the influence of his successful newspaper, Letcher again lost in a bid for election to the House of Delegates. He stepped down from the Valley Star in 1841 but resumed the editorship during the presidential campaign of 1844. He remained deeply involved in the acrimonious political contests of the decade.

During the 1840s Letcher became a vocal advocate of state constitutional reform. With many other Virginians who lived west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he was frustrated that policies of vital interest to their section—including state-funded internal improvements and a free public school system—received little attention in a state legislature dominated by representatives of eastern counties, who wielded legislative power disproportionate to their numbers. In 1847 a prominent Lexington debating club took up the question of whether westerners should seek to create their own state, and Letcher spoke in favor of such a division. The debate quickly turned to the future of slavery, and Letcher, though he paid taxes on three slaves that year, argued that the institution was politically and socially harmful. He endorsed the remarks of Henry Ruffner, president of Washington College, who called for gradual emancipation in western Virginia, and he petitioned Ruffner to publish his speech as a pamphlet.

The Convention of 1850–1851

While campaigning for election in 1850 to a convention called to revise the state's constitution, Letcher publicly recanted his antislavery statements early in July. On 22 August he received the highest vote tally among the five pro-reform delegates elected to represent Augusta, Highland, and Rockbridge Counties at the convention, which met in Richmond from 14 October 1850 to 1 August 1851. He sat on the Committees on the Executive Department and Ministerial Officers, on Printing, on the Method of Proceeding in Amending the Constitution, and on Legislative Guaranties. An assiduous proponent of democratization, Letcher issued a minority report on the reorganization of the executive branch in January 1851 in which he proposed, unsuccessfully, that the governor serve for two years rather than four and that the state treasurer and auditor of public accounts, as well as all militia officers, be elected.

Letcher established himself as one of the convention's foremost advocates of political equality for the western counties. In a major speech on 14 March, he denied easterners' assertions that a white basis of representation in the General Assembly would jeopardize slavery in Virginia and warned that the West would seek separate statehood rather than continue to submit to minority rule. The question of representation stirred the passions of the delegates and defied resolution for months. On 12 May, Letcher was one of four western delegates appointed to an eight-member special committee charged with negotiating a compromise. He helped craft a proposal, which provided the basis of the plan the convention adopted on 16 May, that gave western counties a majority of seats in the House of Delegates and retained an eastern majority in the Senate until 1865, when voters would decide on a basis for reapportionment. On 31 July he voted with the majority in favor of the final version of the constitution, which won ratification later that year.

The House of Representatives, 1851–1858

Letcher deferred his desire to run for the governorship in 1851 and accepted the Democratic nomination for the congressional seat representing the Eleventh District, composed of Augusta, Hardy, Pendleton, Rockbridge, Rockingham, and Shenandoah Counties. He won election unopposed in October. Redistricting for the Thirty-third Congress (1853–1854) placed Letcher in the Ninth District, in which Bath and Highland were added to the counties of the old Eleventh District. He won reelection and served for a total of eight years. A member of the Committees on Public Expenditures and on Mileage during his first term, he sat on the Committee on Claims during his second and third. At the beginning of his third term he joined the influential Committee of Ways and Means, on which he served through his fourth term.

In Congress, Letcher maintained his Jacksonian suspicion of federal involvement in the economy. He opposed the distribution of public lands, aid for internal improvements, and high tariffs. Particularly interested in limiting government spending, waste, and corruption, Letcher in July 1854 became chair of a special committee investigating the behavior of lobbyists. This work, and his opposition to salary increases for members of Congress, won him the nickname "Honest John Letcher, the Watchdog of the Treasury."

After the passage in 1854 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Letcher reluctantly supported, sectional politics dominated the business of Congress for the rest of the decade. Letcher denounced northern proposals to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, and prevent the expansion of slavery beyond its existing boundaries. Though not an agitator for secession, he told his congressional colleagues in 1855 that Virginia "will exhibit a spirit of stern resistance, that she will stand by her rights and institutions to the death." Letcher defended South Carolina congressman Preston Smith Brooks's caning of Republican senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, in 1856 and supported the Lecompton Constitution, which would have established Kansas as a slave state, in 1858.

Campaigning for governor, 1858–1859

During his last term in Congress, Letcher devoted much of his time and energy to laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial campaign in 1858 and 1859. The Virginia Democratic Party had split into factions led respectively by Henry Alexander Wise and Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, and Letcher so disliked Wise that he had refused to campaign on Wise's behalf during Wise's successful bid for the governorship in 1855. Wise and his partisans, in turn, tried to deny Letcher the Democratic nomination in 1858 by accusing Letcher of abolitionism based on his association with the Ruffner pamphlet. On 25 June, Letcher wrote a letter for publication in the Richmond South, a short-lived Democratic newspaper, in which he again retracted his former characterization of slavery as a social and political evil, referred his detractors to his record as a defender of slavery in Congress, and pointed out that he was "the owner of slave property, by purchase and not by inheritance." After a difficult campaign, Letcher retained enough support at the party convention in December to secure the Democratic nomination over five other candidates. In the months before the general election the Opposition Party—composed mostly of former Whigs—focused relentlessly on the Ruffner pamphlet and on Letcher's refusal to endorse special protections for slavery during the Convention of 1850–1851. Illness forced Letcher to stop campaigning in April 1859. On 26 May he nevertheless won election by about 5,500 votes out of about 149,000 cast. He received most of his support from the Valley and northwestern Virginia but did poorly in the East and Southwest.

Governing Virginia during the Sectional Crisis

John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859 escalated the already-bitter sectional conflict, and Letcher took office on 1 January 1860 amid much uncertainty about the future of the Union. In his first message to the General Assembly on 7 January, Letcher blamed the nation's troubles on Northern interference with slavery. To defuse the crisis he proposed a national compromise convention and suggested that Virginia appoint two commissioners to seek the repeal of Northern personal liberty laws. The General Assembly did not pursue these objectives but did heed Letcher's call for legislation to encourage military preparedness, which the governor sought out of prudence rather than belligerence.

A moderate who deplored the breakup of the national Democratic Party, Letcher chose during the presidential campaign of 1860 to support Stephen A. Douglas, who finished a distant third of the four candidates in Virginia. The victory of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of South Carolina emboldened Virginia disunionists, but Letcher continued to urge caution when he addressed the General Assembly as it opened a special session on 7 January 1861. He expressed confidence that, given the stakes, a convention of the states would result in crucial concessions by the North on such issues as the expansion of slavery into the territories and the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Adamant that Virginia must not abandon the Union without seeking a constitutional redress of grievances, Letcher opposed holding a state convention to consider secession but made clear that he would treat coercion by the federal government as an act of war.

Following Letcher's suggestion, the General Assembly invited each state to participate in a national peace conference that met in Washington, D.C., from 4 to 27 February 1861. Working under intense pressure, the delegates failed to broker a workable compromise. Meanwhile, the General Assembly defied the governor and called for a state convention, to which voters elected a moderate Unionist majority on 4 February. In March the inauguration of Lincoln and the growing uncertainty about the future of federal installations in already-seceded states brought more Virginians into the ranks of the secessionists, who bitterly denounced Letcher for his efforts to keep the Union intact. Though Letcher took some strides toward preparing the state for a possible military clash, his abiding hope for sectional reconciliation resulted in significant delays in nominating officers to oversee arms acquisition and coastal defenses. On 12 April, Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter, in South Carolina. The next day Letcher offered a sober speech to the excited crowd that had gathered in front of the Executive Mansion, and he ordered the removal of a secession flag that had been raised over the State Capitol. He denied Lincoln's request on 15 April for troops to put down the rebellion but refused to take over federal property within Virginia's borders until the state officially seceded. Two days later the convention voted to leave the Union.

Governing Virginia during the Civil War Years

Hampered by the organizational confusion that attended rapid military mobilization, Letcher scrambled to amass men and equipment. He placed Robert Edward Lee in command of Virginia's troops, who became part of the Confederate military organization early in June, after Virginia voters had ratified secession in a referendum on 23 May. Throughout the Civil War, Letcher was torn between his devotion to states' rights and the need to cooperate with the Confederate government, which moved to Richmond late in May. In disputes over the authority to call for volunteers, the control of machinery to produce weapons, the legality of conscription, and the requisition of slaves for military work, Letcher yielded to the central government for the sake of the war effort, action that drew intense criticism from citizens and the General Assembly. Of paramount concern to Letcher were the ultimate victory of the Confederacy and the protection of Virginia. He educated himself about military matters, organized several guerrilla units, and proposed, without success, that Union soldiers from the counties that became West Virginia be tried for treason in Virginia courts. In May 1862 Letcher created the Virginia State Line, a home-defense unit made up of men ineligible for the Confederate draft, but the force did little except consume money before the General Assembly dismantled it the following year.

Letcher was unable to control the state's growing public debt or to stem the rampant inflation that devastated Virginia's economy during the war. Shortages of essential supplies threatened to spark internal unrest. In October 1862 the General Assembly authorized Letcher to take control of the procurement and distribution of salt for the state, but he was loath to exercise such power and, after much hesitation, established an ineffective bureaucracy to handle the matter. On 2 April 1863 in Richmond a crowd of women and children demanding bread turned into an unruly and potentially violent mob that looted the Confederate commissary and several nearby stores. Letcher's and the Confederate president's attempts to restore order proved vain until members of the Public Guard received orders to load their weapons and prepare to fire, and the rioters dispersed. The following month Letcher lost election to represent his former congressional district in the Confederate House of Representatives, reflecting public displeasure with his performance as governor. Despite significant military reversals during the summer of 1863, Letcher left the governor's office on 1 January 1864 confident that the Confederacy would prevail.

Later Years, 1864–1884

Letcher, himself impoverished by inflation, returned to Lexington and resumed his law practice. In June 1864 Union troops burned his house. Letcher remained avidly interested in the military campaigns and maintained contact with government officials until the Confederacy crumbled in April 1865. Union cavalrymen arrested him on 20 May, and he was imprisoned in Washington, D.C., with several other prominent Southerners until July, when he was paroled. Letcher believed that rapid sectional reconciliation was in the South's best interest, and he received a presidential pardon on 15 January 1867. Appointed to the board of visitors of the Virginia Military Institute in 1866, he served as president from 1867 until 1882 and helped the school rebuild in the wake of wartime destruction. Letcher aligned himself with the Conservative Party, and in 1875 Rockbridge County voters elected him to the House of Delegates, where he chaired the Roads and Internal Navigation Committee, sat on the Federal Relations and Resolutions Committee, and opposed readjustment of the state debt. Despite suffering a stroke in March 1876, Letcher ran for reelection the following year. Defeated, he retired to Lexington. He grew increasingly ill and weak, and by 1880 his mobility had become severely limited. On 26 January 1884 John Letcher died at his home. He was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery (later Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery), in Lexington.

Contributed by Jennifer R. Loux

Quotations in Lexington Gazette and Citizen, 31 Jan. 1884 (first quotation); Appendix to the Congressional Globe, 33d Cong., 2d sess., 317–320 (second quotation on 318); Daily Richmond Enquirer, 30 June 1858 (third quotation).

This biography was prepared for a forthcoming volume of John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ).

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