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Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Mari Julienne joins us this week with some timely background information on a pivotal document in the state’s history.  Virginia’s signed Ordinance of Secession will be on display at the Library of Virginia on Saturday, 16 April 2011. See our schedule for other events related to the Library’s exhibition, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide.

17 April 1861. While meeting in secret session, the Virginia Convention took a vote on whether to secede from the United States. Two weeks earlier, on 4 April, the convention delegates rejected a resolution to secede by a vote of 90 to 45. The convention, which was called to consider Virginia’s response to the secession crisis, had been meeting in Richmond since 13 February. The delegates had spent many weeks debating whether secession was legal, wise, or in the state’s best interest. Following the surrender of Fort Sumter on 13 April and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops on 15 April, the question facing the delegates became which side to take: to fight with or against the new Confederate States of America. Late in the afternoon on 17 April, the convention chose the Confederacy and voted 88 to 55 to submit an ordinance of secession to the voters in a referendum. On 23 May, Virginia voters approved the Ordinance of Secession, which repealed Virginia’s 1788 ratification of the Constitution of the United States and its subsequent amendments.

Strong’s dime caricatures presents a Northern point of view about secession in 1861. See the link in the comments section to decode the abundant imagery in this political cartoon. Image Courtesy Library of Congress.

While working on the Library’s Union or Secession exhibition (on display in our gallery until 29 October 2011), I learned that not one, but three parchments of the Ordinance of Secession were created after the 17 April vote. The most well known is the parchment elegantly penned by William Flegenheimer in May 1861. It has been in the Library’s records of the 1861 Convention since 1929, when it was returned to the state archives after having been taken from the Virginia capitol in April 1865 by a Union soldier. On 14 June 1861, during the convention’s second session, delegates began signing the parchment created by Flegenheimer. Delegates continued to sign the document until December 1861, when the convention’s third and final session ended. A total of 142 delegates, including former United States president John Tyler, signed the Ordinance. Some of the signers, however, had not been members of the convention at the time of the 17 April vote since they had arrived later to replace delegates who had resigned, died, or been expelled after the first session. The convention authorized lithographic copies of Flegenheimer’s ceremonial version to be made for the convention members, and some of these lithographs still survive today.

The Library of Virginia also has a second parchment in its collections. The enrolled version is the formal, legal text of the Ordinance. It was also inscribed on parchment, along with the other ordinances passed by the convention during its three sessions. During the June 1861 session, this document was signed by the convention’s president to make it official. In the margin are also the signatures of two members of a committee appointed by the convention to verify the text of the ordinance. Both of these documents are part of LVA’s state records collection, in the Virginia Convention (1861: Richmond), Records, 1861–1961, Acc. 40586.

Another parchment version of the Ordinance of Secession was created in the days immediately following the vote on 17 April. It was signed by 92 members of the convention between 24 April and 1 May, when the first session ended, but before the Ordinance was ratified by Virginia’s voters. Some of the signatures are squeezed between columns and in the margin, which may have led to the convention’s decision to commission Flegenheimer to produce his more elaborate ceremonial version. This earlier document was also taken from Richmond in April 1865.  It ended up in the possession of the State Department and is now at the National Archives.

All three versions of Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession can now be examined together in our extensive online resource, Union or Secession: Virginians Decide.

-Mari Julienne, Assistant Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Mari Julienne

Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography

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