Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (review)
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Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union. Edited by William W. Freehling and Craig Simpson. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. Pp. 210. $55.00 cloth; $22.50 paper)

Nearly two decades ago, William Freehling and Craig Simpson edited Secession Debated, a record of the debate in the Georgia Statehouse during the secession crisis. This year, with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Freehling and Simpson edited some of the more insightful orations delivered in the Virginia convention, whose members assembled to discuss the role of the state during the crisis from early February to late April 1861. Through these speeches, the editors illuminate the contentious issues and internal debates with which delegates struggled as they pondered the fate of Virginia. The selected primary sources in Showdown in Virginia likely would not have been available without the work of George H. Reese in the 1960s. Reese painstakingly compiled the convention's communications, reports, and speeches in his Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 (four volumes, Richmond, 1965). In addition to compiling and editing almost three thousand pages of text, Reese added a synopsis of the speeches of each day. While Reese's exhaustive work is essential for anyone researching the convention proceedings, its sheer volume makes it inaccessible to a broader audience. Showdown in Virginia offers an abridged version by eliminating the mundane and repetitive aspects of the proceedings and choosing [End Page 242] speeches that encapsulate larger controversies between the delegates. The editors have astutely selected speeches and edited them into a more comprehensible form. They also provide a balanced mixture of prominent and obscure delegates. Admired men such as George Wythe Randolph, Thomas Jefferson's grandson, and former governor Henry Wise certainly had strong influence over the other delegates, but the editors also included lesser-known delegates such as John Baldwin, whose oratorical eloquence has largely been overlooked. To trace the changing attitudes of the convention, the editors have broken the volume into three thematic parts. Part I is initially dominated by speeches from Unionists, but since "Virginians correctly recognized that secessionists' relevance and confidence swelled toward the moment of decision," the secessionists become predominant later in the section (p. xxii). Part II centers around the often-overlooked issue of taxation. Western delegates used the convention to criticize the states' constitutional tax breaks benefiting slaveholders. These speeches reflect the fear among many western nonslaveholding whites who believed this inequality in taxation relegated them to a station similar to that of slaves. Part III focuses on the tense days surrounding the final vote on secession. Beyond the convention vote, delegates fiercely debated Wise's military action conducted before the people's referendum. Baldwin, along with others, claimed that this action infringed on the liberties of Virginia citizens and was "a violation of fundamental constitutional principles" (p. 197).

Because this edited collection is focused on the convention, it is difficult to gauge the way that everyday Virginians responded to the convention or other national issues, such as the Washington Peace Conference, Lincoln's inaugural address, and the firing on Fort Sumter. Despite the lavish attention given to Virginia during the war, it is surprising that there have not been more studies that focus on Virginia and its convention. The most complete study on the issue is still Henry T. Shanks's The Secession Movement in Virginia, 1847-1861 (1934).

Overall, Freehling and Simpson offer an excellent collection of [End Page 243] sources suitable for a broad audience interested in the issues affecting Virginians. Through voices of the delegates, the editors effectively demonstrate the internal divisions between westerners and easterners and how secession was never certain even after the convention vote that recommended it.

Joseph M. Rizzo

Joseph M. Rizzo is a PhD student at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. His current research focuses on the remembrance of national politicians during the antebellum period.

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