John Letcher was born on March 29, 1813, in Lexington, the first of four children born to a middle-class general store owner. The strict industriousness of his Welsh and Scots-Irish ancestors was not immediately apparent in the tall, gangly young man, for in 1833 he departed Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) after just one year of study. Letcher’s father refused to support him and instead secured him an apprenticeship as a carpenter. A few months of carpentry helped decide Letcher’s mind; he would pursue politics.
Jacksonian Democracy, with its emphasis on limited federal power and white male suffrage, appealed to the level-headed Letcher. He served as an aide for Lexington’s leading Democrat (and later governor) James McDowell and as a law clerk and quickly proved himself an ambitious, involved politician. Letcher frequently wrote letters to state and federal officials and published editorials. He was nominated to run with McDowell for the county’s two seats in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1838, but they lost. Letcher’s fortunes quickly reversed when he was appointed editor of a new Democratic newspaper, the Lexington Valley Star, and he established a law practice in the town after passing the Virginia bar.
Although Letcher earned respect for being a fair and open-minded moderate, Democratic leaders repeatedly cited his youth and inexperience as reasons why he was not nominated to run for the U.S. Congress. He failed to win nomination to the House of Delegates in 1840, and focused instead on his law practice and personal life. On May 14, 1843, he married Susan Holt of Staunton. The couple had eleven children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.
East versus West
Letcher’s return to politics was provoked by growing friction between the wealthier eastern portion of the state and the more mountainous counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The East, and especially the Tidewater, benefited from an economy dominated by slaves and tobacco, and because of its slave population enjoyed better representation in Congress. (Enslaved African Americans were partially counted toward congressional-district populations.) In an attempt to ease tensions and even the economic scales, Letcher pressed for stronger commercial ties between East and West, including the extension of the James and Kanawha Canal up the North River (now Maury River), through the Blue Ridge, and beyond. On the political side, he supported the direct election of the governor and universal white male suffrage, the latter of which would create additional voters among the less-educated and relatively land-poor westerners. At a series of meetings held by Lexington’s debating society in 1847, he went so far as to promote the secession of western Virginia if a satisfactory solution to these issues could not be found. Conveniently for Letcher, his positions also enhanced his standing with the electorate in the Shenandoah Valley, which responded well to his pro-western stance.
Letcher also advocated for the gradual abolition of slavery. In 1848 he endorsed the controversial Ruffner Pamphlet, an economic argument for the gradual emancipation and colonization of western Virginia slaves that Henry Ruffner, president of Letcher’s alma mater, Washington College, had put forth in 1847. Ruffner was no William Lloyd Garrison; like, he opposed slavery for practical, not moral, reasons and made sure to emphasize that “we do not censure our Eastern brethren for opposing this measure so far as their part of the State is concerned.” Letcher, who had always opposed abolition in the Valley Star, was equally practical, signing on only as a way of supporting the West and frightening the East into reform. Still, in future years he would be dogged by his opponents for even briefly supporting Ruffner.
When Virginia governorcalled the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850–1851 to address the conflicts between East and West, Letcher sought election as a delegate. He was elected after publicly retracting his support of the Ruffner Pamphlet, and joined the convention when it assembled in Richmond in October 1850. He was appointed to the Executive Committee, and in May 1851 he and seven other delegates helped break the stalemate with recommendations that Letcher had long stumped for: universal white male suffrage and direct election of the governor. (Previously, governors had been elected by the legislature.)
North versus South
Letcher’s popularity soared after this political victory. His name was mentioned for the governorship, but he chose instead to run for Congress, winning a seat in 1851. Having seen his more liberal goals enshrined in the new state constitution, Letcher tacked to the right, confiding to a friend that “the less we do, the better for our constituents.” He emphasized states’ rights, strict constitutional construction, and thrifty government. Practical, friendly, and staunchly middle-class, he became popularly known as “Honest John.” His moderation was tested, though, by the growing sectional crisis. Although he thought that the differences between northerners and southerners were exaggerated, he worried about the intentions of the newwhere slavery and southern rights were concerned. “A sectional storm rages wildly,” he warned in an 1856 speech, and hinted at secession by suggesting that “the Union is in imminent danger.”
After a decade in Virginia politics, Letcher was eager for the governorship. Despite his proslavery comments while in Congress, his old support of the Ruffner Pamphlet proved a liability in both the Democratic primary and the general election. Still, he was able to withstand a no-holds-barred convention in December 1858, in part by reminding voters of his more recent and bellicose statements on the subjects of slavery and “Black Republicans.” During the general election, the Democrats did their best to play down the issues of disunion and slavery, and Letcher took full advantage of his western support and a divided Whig Party, defeating William Goggin with just 51.87 percent of the vote.
Letcher took office on January 1, 1860. Just a few weeks earlier, the radical abolitionisthad been hanged in Charles Town after his failed raid, in October, on . The state was in an uproar, with talk of secession and many politicians’ wanting to increase Virginia’s military stores and the size of its armed forces. Letcher deflected these cries by noting that there was still time to amend the U.S. Constitution in order to preserve slavery and calm sectional tensions. Nevertheless, Letcher also began quietly preparing for war. He granted weapons contracts to and the Tredegar ironworks in Richmond (then called Joseph R. Anderson and Company). His view of the prospects of compromise darkened: “There must be a speedy and radical change in Northern sentiment,” he wrote, “or we cannot remain a united people.”
Still, Letcher steered a middle course, supporting the Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in theand expressing hope that after the election “a spirit of conciliation and compromise will restore union and harmony in [the Democratic] party.” During the that convened on February 13 to consider secession, Letcher continued to resist overtures from radicals until U.S. president Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion. “You have chosen to inaugurate civil war,” he wrote to the U.S. secretary of war in response to a call for troops from Virginia, “and having done so we will meet you.”
When Virginians ratified the convention’s vote to secede from the Union in May 1861, Letcher became responsible for organizing Virginia’s military and government. He seized control of various military resources within the state (the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, for instance), provided for troop recruitment and training as well as for the protection of transportation routes, and worked to secure the dangerously Unionist northwestern part of the state, while at the same time finding some way to fund it all. He began securing commissions for competent militia leaders, such as, whom Letcher successfully recruited as of land and sea forces, and , whom Letcher knew from Lexington, where Jackson had been a professor at the .
For the duration of the war, Letcher attempted to balance the interests of the state against those of the Confederacy. That the war was largely fought in Virginia, where thealso was located, placed an immense strain on the state’s resources, particularly in terms of foodstuffs and salt. Inflation spiraled out of control, a condition exacerbated by the Confederate policy of impressments. On the
one hand, Letcher represented his constituents’ discontent—especially over infringements ofand property rights—to the Confederate government; on the other, he employed a firm hand to quell dissent. During the , on April 2, 1863, an angry mob of women congregated in Capitol Square to protest the price of foodstuffs (and after not being permitted to see the governor), sacked area shops. Although accounts vary, one version of events claims Letcher called out the Home Guard and threatened to have the women shot unless they dispersed.
Letcher ran for a seat in the Confederate Congress in 1863, but lost to, a result attributed primarily to backlash against Letcher’s support of impressments and failure adequately to address inflation. Letcher left the governor’s mansion on January 1, 1864, turning the Virginia government over to William “Extra Billy” Smith.
Letcher intended to spend the remainder of 1864 practicing law and delivering morale-boosting speeches, but the war again interfered. His eldest son, a freshman private at VMI, went into combat at thein May, and in June Letcher’s home was burned as part of Hunter’s Raid. Union general David Hunter, dispatched to the Valley with orders to strip the Confederate breadbasket of its resources, specifically targeted Letcher’s home in Lexington. After the of the at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Union general-in-chief ordered Letcher’s arrest on the charge of being a “particularly obnoxious” political leader; Union cavalry took Letcher into custody on May 20, 1865. Although he was imprisoned in Washington for just forty-seven days, the threat of being tried for treason remained for two more years.
Still, the postwar years were productive and relatively happy ones for Letcher. Although he was poor and often ill, he remained active in politics and Lexington affairs. He was elected to the House of Delegates and took office in December 1875. The elderly Letcher suffered a stroke just three months into his term, but initially recovered well. Still an able politician, he vehemently opposedand the . By 1880, Letcher was confined to bed, and by 1882 paralysis had begun to overtake his extremities. He died in his sleep on the morning of January 26, 1884. Letcher was buried in the Presbyterian (now Stonewall Jackson) Cemetery.