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Unhappy Anniversary

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April 17, 1861:

An Ordinance to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United State of America by the State of Virginia, and to resume all the rights and powers granted under said Constitution.

The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States:

Now, therefore, we, the people of Virginia, do declare and ordain, That the ordinance adopted by the people of this State in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and all acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying and adopting amendments to said Constitution, are hereby repealed and abrogated; that the union between the State of Virginia and the other States under the Constitution aforesaid is hereby dissolved, and that the State of Virginia is in the full possession and exercise of all the rights of sovereignty which belong and appertain to a free and independent State.

And they do further declare, That said Constitution of the United States of America is no longer binding on any of the citizens of this State.

This ordinance shall take effect and be an act of this day, when ratified by a majority of the voter of the people of this State cast at a poll to be taken thereon on the fourth Thursday in May next, in pursuance of a schedule hereafter to be enacted.

Virginia’s voters cast their approval for the secession ordinance a month later. Meantime, the western counties of the state — which overwhelmingly disapproved of secession — prepared to organize their own separate, loyal government in Wheeling.

We often forget the importance of this particular act of secession. In the two months prior to the attack on Ft. Sumter, the debate over the ordinance was intense in the state that viewed itself as the “Mother of the Union.” While the usual nonsense was served up in favor of departure, many convention members and observers countered by arguing that secession would deprive Virginia of its leading role in the US, converting it instead into a “tail” of the cotton states. Those fears aside, Virginia was more than a mere appendage to the Confederacy, which would have been utterly helpless without the advantages Virginia provided — a large population, a major iron works in Richmond, and geographic proximity to Washingon, DC. In defense of a slave-owning society that had been diminishing in the state for about a century, Virginia’s secessionists squandered tens of thousands of lives and enabled the ruin of their own economy. Among the many poorly-conceived decisions made by my home state, secession surely outranks all challengers.

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