Author: John M. McClure

a graduate student in the History Department at the College of William and Mary
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Wise, Henry A. (1806–1876)

Henry A. Wise was a lawyer, a member of the United States House of Representatives (1832–1844), U.S. minister to Brazil (1844–1847), governor of Virginia (1856–1860) during John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry, and a brigadier general in the Confederate army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Born in Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Wise rose to national prominence during the political turmoil of the late antebellum period. A fiery politician and gifted orator with a mercurial temperament, he advocated a number of progressive positions, including capital improvements in western Virginia, broadening Virginia’s electoral base through constitutional reform, and public funding for universal elementary education. Wise also was a stout defender of slavery and eventually became an ardent secessionist. Perhaps best known for being governor when Brown attempted to spark a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Wise had the authority to commute Brown’s death sentence. Instead, he allowed the execution to take place, making possible the radical abolitionist’s ascension to martyrdom. After Virginia’s secession in 1861, Wise served in the Confederate army. In 1872, he supported U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, the former Union general-in-chief, in his campaign for reelection.

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Ruffin, Edmund (1794–1865)

Edmund Ruffin was a prominent Southern nationalist, noted agriculturalist, writer and essayist, and Virginia state senator (1823–1827). After dropping out of college and serving briefly in the Virginia militia during the War of 1812, Ruffin began a long career farming along the James River and studying the soil. He published the results of his experiments and founded a journal, the Farmers’ Register, in 1833. During these years, Ruffin’s politics also became radicalized, first around banking issues, and then around states’ rights, slavery, and secession. After John Brown‘s failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, Ruffin began speaking out against what he considered to be Northern aggression, and he even joined cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington so he could attend Brown’s execution. Ruffin continued to agitate for secession during the United States presidential election of 1860, and he is erroneously credited with firing the first shot on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, starting the American Civil War (1861–1865). A popular hero in the South, Ruffin nevertheless suffered financial setbacks during the war, as well as declining health, and in 1865, following the Confederates’ defeat, he killed himself.

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United States Presidential Election of 1860

The United States presidential election of 1860 was perhaps the most pivotal in American history. A year after John Brown‘s attempted slave revolt at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, the national debate over slavery had reached a boiling point, and several Southern states were threatening to secede should the Republican Party candidate, Abraham Lincoln, win. Along with its Upper South neighbors, Virginia struggled with both the perceived threat of Northern abolitionism and the fear that secession would trigger war. The four major candidates, meanwhile, reflected a political system in chaos. At its convention, the Democratic Party split into two factions, with the Northern Democrats nominating U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, a moderate on slavery, and the Southern Democrats nominating the U.S. vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, on a proslavery, states’ rights platform. After the demise of the Whig Party, many of its former members went to the Constitutional Union Party, which nominated John Bell of Tennessee and advocated compromise. The Republicans, who opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories, best exploited the circumstances, winning 180 electoral votes and 39.8 percent of the popular vote. Reflecting Virginia’s moderation, however, the state was one of only three to favor Bell. In the end, Lincoln’s election led directly to South Carolina’s secession and the American Civil War (1861–1865).

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