Letcher, the politician in search of votes, distances himself from the Ruffner Pamphlet

Posted on May 14, 2011 by


I figured that I would follow-up on my post from this morning, and briefly tackle the continued role that the Ruffner Pamphlet played, up through the governor’s race in Virginia, in 1859.

John Letcher

During the Democratic nomination run-off for the governorship of Virginia, in 1859, John Letcher may have regretted his stand on the Ruffner Pamphlet just over a decade before. There was an intricate web of politics involved, but essentially, because of his actions in respect to the pamphlet, Letcher had to contend with several political attacks from the Whig party, as well as some rather radical elements of the Democratic party. Inevitably, Letcher was labeled by most of his enemies as “unsound” on the issue of slavery.

In his own defense, and to gain the support of the “Southern Rights Democrats,” Letcher offered a rebuttal that claimed Ruffner had actually changed his address from his oral presentation of “a calm argument on the social and political influence of slavery upon agricultural and mechanical development of Western Virginia”, to one in the pamphlet that “contained many things so exceptional that those  . . . who called upon him to publish his speech refused to contribute to the cost of the publication of the pamphlet.” Interestingly, Letcher made no mention of this shift of Ruffner’s prior to the point when it had become an issue in the campaign.

Letcher… the politician seeking votes, and avoiding political failing… also claimed that his own views had changed considerably, since 1847. While he had originally claimed that he believed slavery to be a political and social evil…. yet, not one to be considered a moral evil… he showed proof of his support for the institution in the fact that he had owned slaves since 1847, and that they had been purchased, and not inherited. Additionally, he claimed that the abolitionists’ attacks had given him sufficient time to reflect, and come to the conclusion that his former views on political and social evils of the institution were wrong. While this seemed to sooth the media, the eastern slaveholding planters continued to rail against him.

Nonetheless, because the Democrats brought five candidates to the party’s nomination convention (helping to split the vote even more), Letcher secured the majority of the vote, and won the nomination.

When it came down to Letcher’s run against Whig William L. Goggin for the governor’s office, the pamphlet again surfaced as a prickly point. While it may have cost him votes in the east, he seemed to secure more votes in the west, and narrowly won the election. Despite waffling, in the name of securing votes, certainly, Letcher’s role as Virginia’s governor during the secession crisis worked, at least for a while, to exhibit that cooler heads prevailed in the Old Dominion.

Throughout it all, and after bearing witness to all that led up to Virginia’s secession, and the war, Ruffner died on December 17, 1861, apparently leaving no written words on his views of the secession crisis, or on the impact that his pamphlet had on pre-war Virginia politics.