This past weekend, April 17 to be exact, was the 150th anniversary of the Virginia secession convention's fateful vote to secede from the Union. Virginia became the first state to renounce the Union in response to an overt act from President Lincoln (his call for 75,000 volunteers in the wake of the shelling of Fort Sumter). Secession conventions in the Deep South states had voted to leave the Union prior to Lincoln's inauguration out of fear that a Lincoln presidency represented a threat to the security of slavery. On the other hand, Virginia's secession convention, which convened on February 13, 1861, twice had defeated secession motions in March and early April. On the second occasion roughly two-thirds of the convention delegates voted against secession. Once Lincoln issued his call for volunteers, however, the convention quickly changed course, and on April 17 voted 88-55 in favor of secession.
At first blush then, the decision of Virginia's political leaders to sever ties with the Union might appear to have had little to do with slavery and everything to do with resisting federal coercion. The decision to secede was not quite that simple, however. The secession vote had to be ratified by a state-wide, popular referendum, set for May 23. The convention, though, submitted two referenda to Virginia's voters that day. The first asked Virginians to ratify the state's secession from the Union, while the second asked them to approve an amendment to the state constitution to tax all personal property, including slaves, at its full value. Virginia's 1851 constitution explicitly limited the taxation of individual slaves to a value of $300, a restriction that the proposed amendment would do away with entirely. At the May 23 referendum, Virginians voted 125,950 to 20,373 in favor of secession and 111,854 to 16,745 in support of the personal property tax amendment. Both referenda passed by nearly identical margins (86%-87% of the overall vote).
So, what was the significance of pairing a referendum on secession with a referendum overturning the partial exemption of slave property from taxation? The short answer, of course, is that these referenda explicitly acknowledged that the issue of secession was intimately and irretrievably bound up with slavery. But if secession was intended to safeguard slavery, why would Virginians simultaneously strip the institution of some of its constitutional protections? After all, prominent slave owners throughout the state worried that the amendment would spook impecunious planters into selling a torrent of slaves out of the state, which would only accelerate the institution's decline. In light of this, the taxation amendment appears to have been a sop to reluctant unionists, necessary to encourage a requisite number of them to support secession, no matter the amendment's impact on slavery. Though still possessed of a large slave population in 1860, the state long had been an exporter of slaves, and the institution no longer was as robust as it was in the Deep South states that founded the Confederacy. The taxation amendment had been introduced at the secession convention by unionist delegates from the state's western interior, a region of sparse slaveholding. The controversial proposal elicited as much debate as the secession ordinance itself and was not assured of passage until the convention had approved the latter measure (see the site, Virginia Memory, for an excellent, succinct documentary history of the secession convention). To many, the convention's last-minute approval of the amendment was a reward to those unionists who abandoned their old ground and supported secession in the momentous April 17 vote.
We should not look at the twin referenda simply as a quid pro quo between secessionist slaveholders and their unionist opponents, however. Rather, these two measures should remind us that the Confederate states did not resort to secession and war merely to maintain slavery's status quo. Instead, they were trying to define a bold new relationship between their political institutions and the slave system. While the charter members of the Confederacy made slavery the "cornerstone" of their political union, Virginia was more deeply divided on the proper place of the institution in its society. Where the Confederacy (which Virginia had yet to join) afforded special constitutional protections to slave property, Virginians sought to harmonize slave ownership with other forms of property ownership. Where the Confederacy arguably erected a slaveholder's republic, Virginia sought to shrink the economic, if not the social, division between slaveholders and non-slaveholders. I would stop short of calling the taxation amendment a step toward a more egalitarian Virginia, but it certainly did aim to adjust the political and economic relations between slaveholders and non-slaveholders in the state. Virginia's subsequent entry into the Confederacy only underscored the significant divisions that new republic would face over the issue of the political power of slavery.