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Message of Gov. Henry A. Wise

December 1859


To the Senate and House of Delegates of the
General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia:


Up to a late period I had fondly hoped to close my official term and part from my executive labors with naught but cause of congratulation on the condition of the commonwealth. But, the uppermost theme in this my last regular message must be, that our peace has been disturbed; our citizens have been imprisoned, robbed and murdered; the sanctity of their dwellings has been violated; their persons have been outraged; their property has been seized by force of arms; a strong hold in their midst, with its arms and munitions of war has been captured, and the inhabitants cut off from the means of defence; a national highway through our limits, and its locomotive trains and telegraphic wires have been stopped; the state and national sovereignties have been insulted and assailed; and state and federal troops have been called out and been compelled to fight, at the loss of several killed and wounded, to subdue rebellion and treason, at Harpers Ferry in the county of Jefferson, within our jurisdiction.

This was no result of ordinary crimes, however highhanded and felonious. It was no conspiracy of bandits against society in general, with the motives which usually actuate criminals, confined to the individual perpetrators, and to be crushed by their arrest and punishment. But it was an extraordinary and actual invasion, by a sectional organization, specially upon slaveholders and upon their property in negro slaves. The home to be invaded was the home of domestic slavery; the persons to be seized were the persons of slaveholders; the property to be confiscated was the property in slaves and the other property of slaveholders alone, such as money, plate, jewels and other of like kind, which was to be taken to compensate the robbers for the trouble and risk of robbing the masters of their slaves; the slaves were not to be taken to be carried away, but they were to be made to stand by the side of the robbers, and to be forced to fight to liberate themselves by massacreing their masters; the arsenal was taken to supply arms to servile insurgents; and a provisional government was attempted, in a British province, by OUR own countrymen, united to us in the faith of confederacy, combining with Canadians, to invade the slaveholding states of the United States; and thus the night of the 16th of October last was surprised and the day of the 17th of October last was startled by the signal guns of rapine, murder, robbery and treason, begun at Harpers Ferry for the purpose of stirring up universal insurrection of slaves throughout the whole south.

Sudden, surprising, shocking as this invasion has been, it is not more so than the rapidity and rancor of the causes which have prompted and put it in motion. It is not confined to the parties who were the present participators in its outrages. Causes and influences lie behind it more potent far than the little band of desperadoes who were sent ahead to kindle the sparks of a general conflagration; and the event, sad as it is, would deserve but little comment, if the condign punishment of the immediate perpetrators of the felonies committed would for the future secure the peace which has been disturbed, and guarantee the safety which is threatened, Indeed, if the miserable convicts were the only conspirators against our peace and safety, we might have forgiven their offences and constrained them only by the grace of pardon. But an entire social and sectional sympathy has incited their crimes, and now rises in rebellion and insurrection to the height of sustaining and justifying their enormity.

It would be pusillanimous to shut our eyes and to affect not to see certain facts of fearful import which stare us in the face, and of which I must speak plainly to you, with the firm and manly purpose of meeting danger and with no weak and wicked design of exciting agitation. That danger exists, of serious magnitude, there can be no doubt in the minds of the most calm and reflecting, and the way to avert it in all cases is to march up to it and meet it front to front. If it has not grown too great already, it will retire from collision; and if it has grown strong enough already for the encounter, it had better be met at once for it will not diminish by delay. I believe in truth, that the very policy of the prime promoters of this apparently mad movement is purely tentative: to try whether we will face the danger which is now sealed in blood. If we "take the dare," the aggression will become more and more insolent; and, if we do not, that it will either truckle or meet us in open conflict to be subdued; and, in either event, our safety and the national peace will be best secured by a direct settlement at once:the sooner the better.

For a series of years social and sectional differences have been growing up, unhappily, between the states of our Union and their people. An evil spirit of fanaticism has seized upon negro slavery as the one subject of social reform, and the one idea of its abolition has seemed to madden whole masses of one entire section of the country. It enters into their religion, into their education, into their politics and prayers, into their courts of justice, into their business, into their legislatures, into all classes of their people, the most respectable and most lawless, into their pulpits and into their presses and school-houses, into their men, women and children of all ages, every where. It has trained three generations, from childhood up, in moral and social habits of hatred to masters of African slaves in the United States. It turns not upon slavery elsewhere, or against slaveholders in any other country, but is especially malignant and vindictive towards its own countrymen, for the very reason that it is bound to them by the faith and sanction of a confederate law. To set up that law to it is to enrage it by the sight of the law, because it is bound by it. It has been taught by the Atheism of a "higher law" than that of a regular government bound by constitutions and statutes. It has been made to believe in the doctrine of absolute individual rights, independent of all relations of man to man in a conventional and social form; and that each man for himself has the prerogative to set up his conscience, his will and his judgment over and above all legal enactments and social institutions. It has been inflamed by prostituted teachers and preachers and presses to do and dare any crime and its consequences which may set up its individual supremacy over law and order. It has been taught from the senate chamber to trust in the fatality of an "irrepressible conflict, " into which it is bound to plunge. Its anti-Christ pulpit has breathed naught but insurrectionary wrath into servants against their masters, and has denounced our national union as a covenant with death for recognizing property in slaves and guaranteeing to it the protection of law. It has raised contributions in churches to furnish arms and money to such criminals as these to make a war for empire of settlement in our new territories. It has trained them on the frontier and there taught them the skill of the Indian in savage warfare, and then turned them back upon the oldest and largest slaveholding state to surprise one of its strongest holds. It has organized in Canada and traversed and corresponded thence to New Orleans and from Boston to Iowa. It has established spies every where, and has secret agents in the heart of every slave state, and has secret associations and "underground rail roads" in every free state. It enlists influence and money at home and abroad. It has sent comforters and counsellors and sympathy, and would have sent rescue to these assassins, robbers, murderers and traitors, whom it sent to felons' graves. It has openly and secretly threatened vengeance on the execution of our laws. And since their violation it has defiantly proclaimed aloud that "insurrection is the lesson of the hour":not of slaves only, but all are to be free to rise up against fixed government, and no government is to be allowed except "the average common sense of the masses, " and no protection is to be permitted against that power.

This is but an epitome, plain and unvarnished, without exaggeration. What is this but anarchy? What does it mean but "confusion worse confounded," and the overthrow of all rights, of all property, of all government, of all religion, of all rule among men? Nothing but mad riot can rule and misrule with such sentiments as these. There can be no compromise with them, no toleration of them in safety or with self-respect. They must be met and crushed, or they will crush us, or our union with non-slaveholding states cannot continue.

The strongest argument against this unnatural war upon negro slavery in one section by another of the same common country, is that it inevitably drives to disunion of the states, embittered with all the vengeful hate of civil war. As that union is among the most precious of our blessings, so the argument ought to weigh which weighs its value. But this consideration is despised by fanaticism. It contemns the Union, and now contemns us for clinging to it as we do. It scoffs the warning that the Union is endangered. The Union itself is denounced as a covenant with sin, and we are scorned as too timid to make the warning of danger to it worthy to be heeded. It arrogantly assumes to break all the bonds of faith within it, and defies the attempt to escape oppression without it. This rudely assails our honor as well as our interest, and demands of us what we will do. We have but one thing to do, unless the numerical majority will cease to violate confederate faith, on a question of such vital importance to us, and will cease, immediately and absolutely cease to disturb our peace, to destroy our lives and property, and to deprive us of all protection and redress under the perverted forms and distorted workings of the Union, we must take up arms. The issue is too essential to be compromised any more. We cannot stand such insults and outrages as those of Harpers Ferry without suffering worse than the death of citizens::without suffering dishonor, the death of a state.

For a quarter of a century we have been persuaded to forbear, and patiently to wait for the waking and working of the conservative elements in our sister states. We have borne and forborne, and waited in vain. We know that we have many sound and sincere friends in the non-slaveholding states. It may be that they are most numerous far who abhor and detest such wrongs as these; but it is not to be disguised that the conservative elements are passive, whilst the fanatical are active, and the former are fast diminishing, whilst the latter are increasing in numbers and in force. But where is the evidence that the conservative elements are most powerful? Do we look to the schools and colleges? to the pulpits and clergy, and churches and congregations? to the press? to the journals? to the books? to the professions? the artisans? to associations, which are marked characteristics of the age? to politics? to public assemblies and speakers? to legislatures? to congress? to laws, either state or federal? to elections? to the administration of laws? to judicial decisions? Alas! turn where we will and to what we will, we find that the judgments of the courts only are with us, but they have lost all reverence and respect, and we are left without protection, and the supreme court of the United States is itself assailed for not assailing our constitutional defences. And these last are assailed in denying the rights of protection itself. A new sovereignty and a new law is set up over the old, and we are denied protection under both. Where the federal government has no power to oppress, it is assumed; and where it has the power and it is its duty to protect, it is not allowed to intervene. And the non-slaveholding states are in nearly solid array opposed to us. We, united, may contend for a while by the aid of pluralities, but for a short time only, and uncertainly at any time, and at best have no majorities on which we can rely in at least sixteen states, having the power of the Union. The active has overcome the passive elements; fanaticism has subdued conservatism in all these states, and these can now, in our present condition, practically wield our destinies for weal or woe. Will they come back to the constitution and abide its covenants or not? What those covenants are I have fully discussed in a reply to the resolutions of Vermont, which are herewith submitted, with my response appended, as a part of this message. I put it upon the archives of state as the most elaborate study of the subject of which I am capable.

But no words can elaborate the issues to which we are now practically brought by the events at Harpers Ferry.

It is vain to point to the paucity of the numbers of the marauders. The daring of their attempt would prove not more their foolhardiness than their full assurance that they were to be joined by a force sufficient to be formidable. If they had not mistaken the number and disposition of the slaves, who they expected to seize the spears, which they brought to capture an arsenal of arms, it is not known, and will never be known, how many other white fanatics would have swelled their numbers, nor how much blood and treasure it would have cost to quell their rebellion. Few they were, but they were fatal to the lives of several of our most worthy citizens; and insultingly dared the chances of doing immeasurable mischief to our entire northern border.

And it is mockery to call them monomaniacs. Maniacs they were, only as all great criminals are; and monomaniacs they were, only as the subject of slavery makes men more insensate than any other one subject can. If these men were monomaniacs, then are a large portion of the people of many of the states monomaniacs.

Before these crimes, they were deemed sane soldiers in a notable crusade against slavery and slaveholders. Many of those who now plead their insanity for them, put Sharpe's rifles in their hands and enlisted and trained and trusted their wits for war in Kansas. Contributions were raised for them in churches. They had been puffed with the praise of the professedly pious for being the very men of destiny for the mission against slave settlements. They had been furnished with money to make sharp spears of butchery for the throats and breasts of masters, and to supply munitions and stores of regular campaigns. They assembled together from parts as far between as they themselves were few. They were provided, supplied and furnished with much beyond their own wants or means. And it is passing strange that they, madmen, should, few as they were, have been so many madmen, meeting from so far apart, so well supplied by others than themselves, at a point so well selected, and that they should have conspired with so much method as to be so successful, against such apparent odds. Were these parties, known and unknown, so situated, all mad? It is enough to say that the leader himself spurned the falsehood, hypocrisy and cowardice of this mawkish plea of monomania, and neither he, nor one of his men, nor their counsel, put it in upon their trials. He expected from his prompters and backers and sympathizers better pretence and more potent defence than that. Before his failure and defeat in what, in their correspondence with him, they called a "glorious cause," their sympathy was all with his desperate daring and success; and now it is with his insanity for a plea against the legal penalties of his crimes, which had their origin in this very sympathy. A sympathy which saw his insanity too late to snatch from his hands the weapons it had placed there; too late to save the lives taken by its own incitement; and too late to save him from a felon's fate.

By our laws, the plea of insanity could avail at any time, in any stage of trial, and after conviction, before sentence of the court; and after the judicial tribunals were done with the prisoners and they were turned over to the executioner, the executive authority could forefend the law's sentence upon the insane. If either could show or prove insanity, either now, or on trial, he could not be executed as long as I am the governor of the commonwealth, until cured in an asylum; and, if insane at the time of committing the offence, he could not be executed, cured or not cured, at all. But these men needed no mental cure; theirs was a moral malady of devils, which no power but divine could cast out. They were deliberate, cunning, malignant malefactors, desperately bent on mischief, with malice aforethought, gangrened by sectional and social habitual hatred to us and ours. Their vengeance was whetted by previous collisions hundreds of miles from us, and it whetted jagged edge spears which it brought the hundreds of miles for our destruction. They came a few, like thieves in the night, did their deeds of death and were easily crushed; but they were prompted by an evil spirit of incendiarism which demoralizes a numerous host of enemies behind them, who now blatantly sympathize with their deeds in open day before the world. These hired them to be assassins, robbers, murderers and traitors, without themselves incurring the risk of their crimes; and it is no wonder that they now sympathize with them even to madness, and that John Brown despised the hypocritical cant of their pretence that he was insane.

The details of this conspiracy and of its denouement at Harpers Ferry are given in the various accompanying reports. Much of the correspondence and many of the papers of the culprits were found. I have had them collected and copied by competent amanuenses, and they are hereto appended. Suffice it to say, in reference to my own official action, that the first intelligence of the outbreak reached me in the morning of the 17th October, and was very vague. Orders were dispatched immediately to Col. Gibson of Jefferson, to call out the necessary force of his own and adjacent regiments. But late in the evening of the same day, about 7 o'clock, the telegraph announced more serious and precise cause of danger. The news was that 750 marauders had seized the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, with all its arms and munitions, and were arming the slaves, and that actual murder was done, and several citizens were killed and wounded. I immediately called out the 1st regiment of volunteers and as many men of the 179th regiment of militia as could get ready to move by the first train the following morning. And in one hour, at 8 P. M. on the 17th, I departed in person, with company F, Capt. Cary, for the scene. At Washington I was joined by Capt. Marye of the Alexandria rifles, and proceeded with 91 men and officers. At the Relay house in Maryland I received intelligence on the 18th that no more force was necessary, and I ordered back the force under Col. August. And from that place I telegraphed Col. Lee to make no terms with the insurgents. By 1 o'clock on the 18th I arrived with the force under my command. Col. Lee made no terms, and had subdued the insurgents before my arrival. I immediately examined the leader, Brown, his lieutenant, Stevens, a white man named Coppoc, and a negro from Canada. They made full confessions. Brown repelled the idea that his design was to run negro slaves off from their masters. He defiantly avowed that his purpose was to arm them and make them fight by his side in defence of their freedom, if assailed by their owners or any one else; and he said his purpose especially was to war upon the slaveholders, and to levy upon their other property to pay the expense of emancipating their slaves. He avowed that he expected to be joined by the slaves and by numerous white persons from many of the slave as well as free states. There was nothing for me to do, but to arrest those who had escaped, to search for their hidden arms and plunder, to try to recapture the slaves they had taken, to get all their papers which could be found, and to have them proceeded against according to law. Had I reached the place before they surrendered, I would have proclaimed martial law, have stormed them in the quickest time possible, shown them no quarter, have tried the survivors, if any, by court martial, and have shot the condemned on the spot. But owing to the delay of the cars at Washington and the Relay house and to the slow travel from the latter place to the ferry, I was too late. When I arrived they were subdued; they were prisoners and some of them wounded, and I was bound to protect them. I took them under the jurisdiction of Virginia; they were guarded from all violence, food and refreshment and surgical aid and every comfort at my command were given them; they were proceeded against regularly by the civil authority, under civil process from both state and federal governments, and I went in person with them, under a military guard to Charlestown, and saw them safely lodged in jail, in custody of the sheriff, under civil and military guard. I remained a night to see that no violence was attempted from any quarter, and the next morning, after giving necessary orders to Col. Gibson and furnishing him with arms, returned to Harpers Ferry. The services of counsel to assist the commonwealth's attorney were engaged by me for the state. Seeing, on the morning of the 18th that the United States marines were ordered away from Harpers Ferry, I ordered a police military guard for the confines around the arsenal. I did not remove the prisoners further into the interior, because I was determined to show no apprehension of a rescuer and if the jail of Jefferson had been on the line of the state, they should have been kept there, to show that they could be kept anywhere chosen in our limits. Soon after I returned to Richmond, I notified the president of the United States that the reason so few men had captured the arsenal of the United States was that there was no military guard there, and that I had organized a guard to protect our frontier and, incidentally, to protect the property of the United States. A neglected arsenal had been made a positive danger to us; we had been invaded by lawless bands from other states, against which the United States were bound to defend us; we had been obliged to call out troops to defend the federal property, and at last had to guard it.

Thus the affair passed for the time being from the military to the civil authority. And here I cannot express too strongly what is due to the militia for the promptitude with which they volunteered for duty and obeyed my orders. The Jefferson, Berkeley and Shepherdstown militia were first at the scene, and manifested good courage and did some service; but they were restrained by a natural tenderness for their neighbors and friends who were held prisoners and hostages, and supposed to be in imminent danger from any attempt to storm their captors. The first regiment of volunteers [sic], and company F especially of that regiment, which was ready in an hour from the call, and a part of the 179th, and the Alexandria rifles, and the companies of Fredericksburg and of Orange and Albemarle, all gallantly took arms and moved promptly. More than I called came, and were ready and anxious to do duty and to be first to encounter danger. A finer spirit and better temper of soldiers could not have been displayed.

The state judiciary took the culprits in charge. Legal warrants were issued and served upon them; a court of examination was regularly held over those who did not waive it; and they were formally indicted in a court of competent jurisdiction. They had the full benefit of compulsory process for witnesses in their defence; had counsel assigned them and counsel of their own selection; were confronted by witnesses and accusers; and were given, according to our bill of rights, as in all other cases, a speedy and fair trial by an impartial jury of the vicinage; upon their own confession and upon other evidence, leaving no doubt of guilt, were legally convicted of several capital offences; were heard in person and by counsel, why sentence should not be pronounced upon them; were given every opportunity of applying for writs of supersedeas; did apply; and the court of highest resort, the court of appeals, sustained the judgment and sentence of the court which tried them. Never were prisoners treated with more lenity of trial. And never in any case, in the history of trials, was justice administered with more forbearance, more calmness, more dignity and more majesty of law:never were such prisoners treated with as much benignant kindness as they have been by the people whom they outraged sufficiently to have incited summary punishment.

To prevent any such punishment on the one hand, and a rescue on the other; to guard justice, in a word, I called into service military guards, to aid the civil authority and keep the peace. Receiving information that organization of guards was necessary, I sent an aid to the scene, there to see what was wanting, to assist the adjutant general, and to pass my orders. Col. J. Lucius Davis, a competent soldier, volunteered his services, and I accepted them, to organize the corps, to distribute arms, to post guards and to provide subsistence and quarters, and to call for whatever was wanting. These services he continued most faithfully and efficiently to perform, with my full approbation, until very recent events made it necessary to call for more troops; and Major General Wm. B. Taliaferro, of the fourth division, repaired to the place, and volunteered in person to take command. Many of the troops were from his division, and I could not decline the tender of his services. During the trial of the prisoners and since, appeals and threats of every sort, the most extraordinary, from every quarter, have been made to the executive. I lay before you the mass of these, it being impossible to enter into their details. Though the laws do not permit me to pardon in cases of treason, yet pardons and reprieves have been demanded on the grounds of, 1st, insanity; 2d, magnanimity; 3d, the policy of not making martyrs.

As to the first, the parties by themselves or counsel put in no plea of insanity. No insanity was feigned even; the prisoner Brown spurned it. Since his sentence, and since the decision on the appeal, one of his counsel, Samuel Chilton, Esq., has filed with me a number of affidavits professing to show grounds for delaying execution, in order to give time to make an issue of fact, as to the sanity of the prisoner. How such an issue can now, after sentence, confirmed by the court of appeals, be made, I am ignorant; but it is sufficient to say that I had repeatedly seen and conversed with the prisoner, and had just returned from a visit to him, when this appeal to me was put into my hands. As well as I can know the state of mind of any one, I know that he was sane, and remarkably sane, if quick and clear perception; if assumed rational premises, and consecutive reasoning from them; if cautious tact in avoiding disclosures, and in covering conclusions and inferences; if memory and conception and practical common sense, and if composure and self possession are evidences of a sound state of mind. He was more sane than his prompters and promoters, and concealed well the secret which made him seem to do an act of mad impulse, by leaving him without his backers at Harpers Ferry; but he did not conceal his contempt for the cowardice which did not back him better than with a plea of insanity, which he spurned to put in on his trial at Charlestown.

As to the second ground of appeal: I know of no magnanimity which is inhumane, and no inhumanity could well exceed that to our society, our slaves as well as their masters, which would turn felons like these, proud and defiant in their guilt, loose again on a border already torn by a fanatical and sectional strife which threatens the liberties of the white even more than it does the bondage of the black race.

As to the third ground: Is it true that the due execution of our laws, fairly and justly administered upon these confessed robbers, murderers and traitors, will make them martyrs in the public sentiment of other states? If so, then it is time indeed that execution shall be done upon them, and that we should prepare in earnest for the "irrepressible conflict," with that sympathy which, in demanding for these criminals pardons and reprieves, and in wreaking vengeance for their refusal, would make criminals of us. Indeed, a blasphemous moral treason, an expressed fellow-feeling with felons, a professed conservatism of crime, a defiant and boastful guilty demoniac spirit combined, arraign us, the outraged community, as the wrong-doers who must do penance and prevent our penalty by pardon and reprieve of these martyrs. This sympathy sent these men, its mere tools, to do the deeds which sentenced them. It may have sent them to be martyrs for mischief's sake; but the execution of our laws is necessary to warn future victims not again to be its tools. To heed this outside clamor at all, was to grant at once unconditional grace. To hang would be no more martyrdom than to incarcerate the fanatic. The sympathy would have asked on and on for liberation, and to nurse and soothe him, whilst life lasted, in prison. His state of health would have been heralded weekly as from a palace; visitors would have come affectedly reverent, to see the shorn felon at his "hard labor;" the work of his hands would have been sought as holy relics; and his party-colored dress would have become, perhaps, a uniform for the next band of impious marauders. There was no middle ground of mitigation. To pardon or reprieve at all, was to proclaim a licensed impunity to the thousand fanatics who are mad only in the guilt and folly of setting up their individual supremacy over law, life, property, and civil liberty itself. This sympathy with the leader was worse than the invasion itself. The appeal was: it is policy to make no martyrs, but disarm murderers, traitors, robbers, insurrectionists, by free pardon for wanton, malicious, unprovoked felons! I could but ask, will execution of the legal sentence of a humane law make martyrs of such criminals? Do sectional and social masses hallow these crimes? Do whole communities sympathize with the outlaws, instead of sympathizing with the outraged society of a sister sovereignty? If so, then the sympathy is as felonious as the criminals, and is far more dangerous than was the invasion. The threat of martyrdom is a threat against our peace, and demands execution to defy such sympathy and such saints of martyrdom. The issue was forced upon us: Shall John Brown be pardoned, lest he might be canonized by execution of felony for confessed murder, robbery and treason in inciting servile insurrection in Virginia? Why a martyr? Because thousands applaud his acts and opinions, and glorify his crimes? Was I to hesitate after this? Sympathy was in insurrection, and had to be subdued more sternly than was John Brown. John Brown had surely to die according to law, and Virginia has to meet the issue. It is made. We have friends or we have not in the states whence these invaders come. They must now be not only conservative but active to prevent invaders coming. We are in arms.

Information from all quarters, with responsible names, and anonymous, dated the same time, from places far distant from each other, came, of organized conspiracies and combinations to obstruct our laws, to rescue and seize hostages, to commit rapine and burning along our borders on Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, proceeding from these states and from New York, Massachusetts and other states and Canada. These multiplied in every form for weeks; and at last, on the 19th of November, a call was very properly and timely made by Col. Davis for an additional force of 500 men.

These reports and rumors, from so many sources, of every character and form, so simultaneous, from places so far apart, at the same time, from persons so unlike in evidences of education, could be from no conspiracy to hoax; but I relied not so much upon them, as upon the earnest continued general appeal of sympathizers with the crimes. It was impossible for so much of such sympathy to exist without exciting bad men to action of rescue or revenge. On this I acted.

I immediately put in motion the troops of Richmond, Alexandria, Petersburg and Fauquier, who obeyed promptly:and in the time from 11 o'clock Saturday night to Tuesday morning, 563 men were added to the guards at Charlestown. I again went in person with the troops; assembled the commanding officers, organized the command, issued general orders, and returned to Harpers Ferry, where I met Gen. Taliaferro, and accepted his services. Since then I have ordered an additional force of 560 men from Norfolk and Portsmouth and Petersburg and Orange and Albemarle and Augusta, and Rockingham and Wheeling, and have called out a corps of howitzers under Col. Smith, of Virginia Military Institute. And I have ordered Generals Rogers and Hunton to do whatever is necessary to guard the borders from the Point of Rocks to Alexandria; and the whole border is guarded west to Piedmont. I have exhausted this and the next year's quotas in issuing efficient arms, and have purchased arms of the best improved models, and issued them and coats and blankets to the troops. In a word, I have been compelled by apprehension of the most unparalleled border war, to place the state in as full a panoply of military defence as if a foreign enemy had invaded us. Indeed, one of the most irritating features of this predatory war, is that it has its seat in British provinces, which furnish asylums for our fugitives from justice and from labor, and sends them and their hired outlaws back upon us from depots and rendezvous in bordering states. There is no danger from our slaves or colored people. The slaves taken refused to take arms, and the first man killed was a respectable free negro who was trusted with the baggage of the rail road, and who faithful to his duty was shot running from the philanthropists who came to liberate the black race!

But why do our slaves on the border not take up arms against their masters? We must look firmly at this fact before we take it as a solace. In the answer to that question lies the root of our danger. Masters in the border counties now hold their slaves by sufferance. The slave could fly to John Brown much easier than he could come and take him. The slaves at will can liberate themselves by running away. The underground rail road is at their very doors, and they may take passage when they please. They prefer to remain. John Brown's invasion startled us; but we have been tamely submitting to a greater danger, without confessing it. The plan which silently corrupts and steals our slaves, which sends secret emissaries among us to "stampede" our slaves, which refuses to execute fugitive slave laws, which forms secret societies for mischief, with the motto, "alarm to their sleep, fire to their dwellings, and poison to their food and water," and which establishes underground rail roads, and depots and rendezvous for invasion, is more dangerous than the invasion by John Brown. Yet the latter excites us, and in the former we have been sleepily acquiescing. It is no solace to me, then, that our border slaves are so liberated already by this exterior asylum, and by this still, silent, stealing system, that they have no need to take up arms for their own liberation. Confederate states as well as individuals have denounced our laws and set them at defiance; they have by their laws encouraged and facilitated the escape of our slaves, and have made abolition a cancer eating into our very vitals.

We must, then, acknowledge and act on the fact that present relations between the states cannot be permitted longer to exist without abolishing slavery throughout the United States, or compelling us to defend it by force of arms.

On the 25th ultimo I addressed letters to the governors of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio, of which the accompanying are copies. From the governor of Maryland I have received a very satisfactory reply, herewith submitted. I have received a reply, by telegraph, from the governor of Pennsylvania also, who, I am proud to say, has promptly performed his duty in delivering up the fugitives from justice, and who protests that his state will do her confederate duty in all respects. He intimates that Virginia ought not to anticipate that Pennsylvania will neglect to prevent obstructions to or violations of the laws in her limits; but a watchful guardianship of Virginia's safety could not neglect to apprise Pennsylvania's authorities of crimes meditated against either state (of which I was informed, and they were, probably, not informed), by way of intelligence and warning. John Brown, with his associates, arms and stores, had just before already passed through Pennsylvania, and had remained at places in her limits, and he had enlisted one man, at least, a negro, in one of her towns. I had not, therefore, anticipated the facts, but appealed to them for steps of prevention and precaution, after what had already occurred. And the governor of Pennsylvania, I presume, speaks more in the spirit of a just state pride than from such evidences of danger and cause of apprehension as the executive here is in possession of, respecting combinations, depots and rendezvous in adjoining states for invading the borders of Virginia. From the governor of Ohio I have as yet received no answer.

On the same day, the 25th ultimo, I addressed a letter to the president of the United States, of which the enclosed is a copy. On the 29th I received from him the accompanying answer, to which I have not replied, but upon which I must here comment.

He seems to think that the constitution and laws of the United States do not provide authority for the president to interpose to "repel invasion," or keep the peace between the states, in cases where the citizens of one state invade another state, unless the executive or legislature of the state invaded applies for protection. I differ from this opinion. Neither the framers of the constitution nor the congress of 1795 were guilty of so gross an omission in their provisions for the national safety.

By clause 3d of section 9th of article 1st of the constitution, the states are deprived of the power, "without the consent of congress, to keep troops or ships of war in time of peace, or to engage in war, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay."

To compensate them for this privation of the power of preparation for defence, it is provided in section 4th of article 4th, that "the United States shall guarantee to every state in the Union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened), against domestic violence."

Now, it is readily conceded, "United States" here is to be taken as synonimous [sic] with the words "the congress." The clause is in juxtaposition with clauses defining the powers of "the congress." And if they were not, by the 18th clause of section 8th of article 1st, to "the congress" is given the power "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution" its own powers, "and all other powers vested in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof."

This duty and power then of guaranteeing protection to every state against invasion, belongs unquestionably to congress. Has it exercised the power? It has. Thus:

To the congress also is given the power "to raise and support armies," and "to provide and maintain a navy," and these are called, specially, "the land and naval forces" of the United States.

I presume that no one will gainsay the proposition that the chief object of these land and naval forces is "to suppress insurrections and to repel invasions."

But in addition to these powers, another is specially added: "To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions." And I presume that no one will insist that the regular army and navy of the United States may not be ordered to execute the laws of the Union, and to suppress insurrections and repel invasions, without calling forth the militia, or though the militia may be called forth, to execute the same purposes.

This granted, the congress did pass the laws: 1st, to raise armies, and to provide and maintain a navy, as well as laws for calling forth the militia.

And then, by article 2nd, the president is vested with the executive power. He is sworn faithfully to execute the office of president, and to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States;" and he is made commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; and he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

Now, to revert to the 4th section of the 4th article:

In this section, there are two things against which the United States guarantees protection to every state:

1st, against "invasion." Not one kind of invasion or another, but simply "invasion" of all kinds from every quarter; and no application for protection is required against "invasion." Whenever it comes, however it comes, it is to be protected against. The word itself imports force from without:any force from without the state invaded, whether from foreign country, or alien enemies or Indian tribes; it is confined to no particular invasion. And against this the president has the means, provided by congress in the laws raising and providing a standing army and navy:the land and naval forces of the United States, which need not be "called forth," but are armies already raised and standing, and a navy already "provided and maintained." The president is commander in chief of these, and may order them to repel actual invasion, as they are already in actual service without being "called forth." And he is surely as much bound to execute the constitution as the statutes of congress. "The laws," to be executed, embrace both, and he has the means to execute both provided in the statutes for raising armies and providing a navy, as well as in the laws calling forth the militia.

But to proceed:

2nd. The second thing that every state is to be protected against is, "domestic violence." These words import force from within:a domestic force, acting in rebellion or insurrection or obstruction of the laws, against the state. To interpose against this, there must be an application of the legislature, or of the executive of the state when the legislature cannot be convened.

And under this clause, of this section, special acts of February 28th, 1795, and of March 3rd, 1807, have been passed. They are wholly distinct from the laws of congress raising armies and providing a navy. The first clause of the 1st section of the act of 1795 relates to invasions of the United States "from any foreign nation or Indian tribe." The 2nd clause of that section relates to "insurrection, in any state against the government thereof," &c., to "domestic violence," in other words, and not expressly or impliedly to "invasion of any state." And the 2nd section of the act relates to obstructions of the laws of the United States, and not of any state. And the whole act, so far as it relates to the states, is an act to provide for "calling forth the militia" to suppress domestic violence, and not for commanding the land and naval forces already in actual service against "invasion." Invasion of any state is in fact invasion of the United States. And the act of 1807 applies expressly to cases only of "insurrection or obstruction to the laws either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory. And if the president's construction of his power be correct, this act, which was intended undoubtedly to extend the act of 1795, and enlarge its provisions, would operate to restrict and contract its provisions. He could not use such part of the land and naval force of the United States as shall be judged necessary by him, without having first observed all the prerequisites of the law for calling forth the militia. These acts, in a word, do not in word or meaning apply to cases of "invasion of a state," but so far as a state is concerned, to cases only of domestic violence; and where the militia are called forth on application of the legislature or of the executive of the state rebelled against.

Here there was no "insurrection;" no case of force from within. Invasion was threatened from without, by citizens of one state against another state. It is monstrous to say that there is nothing in the constitution or laws guaranteeing protection to a state in such cases. The constitution is express. It needs in fact the laws only which have been passed:the laws of the army and navy of the United States, and the laws for calling forth the militia, to execute both of the clauses of protection guaranteed by the constitution to "every state in this Union." The men of 1795 made no such gross omission. They understood their work too well for that. And what a spectacle the United States would have presented, if on the second an army of fanatics had invaded Virginia to rescue felons legally convicted, and a bloody battle had been joined, and the United States land forces at Harpers Ferry had stood neutral spectators, guarding only the United States arsenal, and playing posse comitatus to a United States marshal, but not allowed to aid the execution of the laws of a state or to repel invasion, because the United States were not invaded "from a foreign country, or by Indian tribes." The bare statement is revolting to the 4th section of the fourth article of the constitution guaranteeing protection to every state against invasion; to every statute of congress raising land and naval forces of the United States; to all the ends and purposes of those laws and to peace; to the oath and executive office of the president of the United States to preserve, protect and defend the constitution, and to see the laws faithfully executed.

Such are my views of the constitution and laws. The views of the president, it seems, are different. I notified him of a just apprehension that this state was threatened with "invasion" by a predatory border war, to rescue prisoners convicted of high crimes and felonies, and to seize our citizens as hostages and victims in case of execution of the criminals, proceeding from several surrounding states.

He answers, that "it would seem almost incredible that any portion of the people of the states mentioned, should be guilty of the atrocious wickedness as well as folly of attempting to rescue convicted traitors and murderers from the penalty due to their crimes under the outraged laws of Virginia."

I reply to him, through you, gentlemen, that it is strange this should seem so incredible, when the very "convicted traitors and murderers" were portions of the people of the states mentioned, who had just been convicted of invading our border, and seizing a United States arsenal, and of perpetrating treason and murder against both the state and the United States authority. And I surely may be allowed latitude for acting on the mass of information I have received, of renewed invasion, when, perhaps, pardonable inattention at Washington to warning of the murder and treason at Harpers Ferry, left an arsenal and a people defenceless against that invasion!

I did not call on the president to protect Virginia, and would not do so. I apprised him of apprehensions "in order that he might take steps to preserve peace between the states." I had called out our own militia, and they are a thousand fold ample to defend their state. They have had not only to guard their own border but to guard in part the arsenal of the United States. The president has however manifested a "cheerful and cordial" disposition to defend the place ceded to the United States at Harpers Ferry; he sent a small guard, as soon as informed it was unguarded, and has reinforced that guard, "not only to protect the public property clearly within federal jurisdiction, but to prevent the insurgents from seizing the arms in the arsenal at that place, and using them against the troops of Virginia." "Besides," he says, "it is possible the additional troops may be required to act as a posse comitatus on the requisition of the marshal of the United States for the western district of Virginia; to prevent the rescue of Stevens, now in his custody, charged with the crime of high treason."

Then for these objects:1st. to keep arms of the United States out of the hands of the invaders of Virginia: and 2d. To act as "posse comitatus" to a United States marshal, the land forces of the United States may be used; but 3d. Not to prevent "invasion" of one state by the people of another state. And he says he can discover nothing in any provision in the constitution or laws of the United States which would authorize him to "take steps" for the purpose of preserving peace between the states, "by guarding places in surrounding states which may be occupied as depots and rendezvous by desperadoes to invade Virginia." As I understand his interpretation of the constitution and laws, he cannot call forth the militia nor employ the land and naval forces of the United States, "for this purpose." He says it is the duty of the respective state governments to break up such depots, and to prevent their citizens from making incursions, &c.; but that if the federal executive were to enter these states and perform this duty for them, it would be a manifest usurpation of their rights. Were he thus to act it would be a palpable invasion of state sovereignty, and as a precedent might prove highly dangerous." Now, this is new doctrine, and teaches even Virginia a lesson of state rights which destroys her constitutional guarantee of protection by the United States against "invasion" by abolition fanatics from other states. They are not from any foreign country, nor are they Indian tribes. The fanatics from free states, such as John Brown and Stevens, he says, in effect, are not invading the United States when invading Virginia; they are not "from any foreign nation or Indian tribe," rendering it lawful for the president to employ the federal forces to repel such invasion."

These are alarming doctrines to the invaded states. And however the argument or the error may be between the president and your executive, this at least is clear, that if I am right in my views of our guarantee of protection in the case before us, imminent as it is, he, the executive of the United States, does not concur with me, and will not enforce the protection we need; and on the other hand if he is right, and we cannot legally claim that the United Slates shall keep the peace between states and guarantee one state against invasion from another, the federal executive cannot interpose to repel or prevent the invasion. In either case, we are clearly thrown on our self dependence. We must rely on ourselves, and fight for peace! I say then:To your tents! Organize and arm!

The constitutional guarantee of protection is withheld, whilst we are invaded from all around, and this withholding will inspirit the sympathizers in felony against our property and lives. To defend ourselves, and to suppress sympathy in insurrection, which must multiply felons against our peace and safety; and if they did not intend invasion before, will make them enact it now; under this construction of state rights to disturb and state rights to defend the public peace, we will need all our forces for the conflict. I therefore recommend to you more energetic measures than the president compliments me for adopting on the side of peace against invasion.

I repeat:

1st. Organize and arm.

2d. Demand of each state in the Union what position she means to maintain for the future in respect to slavery and the provisions of the constitution and laws of the United States, and the provisions of state laws for its protection in our federal relations; and be governed according to the manner in which the demand shall be answered. Let us defend our own position, or yield it at once. Let us have action and not resolves:definitive settlement, and no more temporizing the constitution, and no more compromise.

John Brown, the leader of the invasion of Harpers Ferry, was executed, according to the sentence of the court, on the 2d instant. His body was delivered, by my request to the sheriff of Jefferson county, to the orders of Major General Taliaferro, to be guarded safely to Harpers Ferry, and there delivered to his widow, Mary Brown. The laws of the commonwealth have reigned in his arrest, trial and execution; and when dead, under the sentence, they released his remains to his relatives, to whom they have, with dignity and decency, been handed over.

The other convicts await execution, and will be executed on the 16th, unless the general assembly orders otherwise. I shall be guided in my course in respect to the reprieve, pardon or commutation of punishment of these, or in respect to their execution, by your resolves. This will meet the open invasion, but it acts only on the individual convicts, and it don't settle the question of our peace and protection against future aggression. To do that, we must cease to resolve, and take decided action. What action, is for you to decide. I have done my part, according to the best of my ability:and it remains only for me to offer myself, all that I am and all that I have, to the commonwealth, wherever she may order me or mine, in any service, when the term of my present office closes.

I submit detailed recommendations in another message. I am, most

respectfully and devotedly,

Your obedient servant,


Source: Doc. No. I. Governor's Message and Reports of the Public Officers of the State, of the Boards of Directors, and of the Visitors, Superintendents, and other Agents of Public Institutions or Interests of Virginia. Richmond: William F. Ritchie, 1859.

Chapter Thirteen: Toward Civil War

His Soul Goes Marching On

West Virginia Archives and History