Jackson had remained generally aloof from national politics. As a slaveholder, he was aware of the congressional debate over slavery in the territories, but not deeply versed in it. He was like many ordinary Virginians of his day: a moderate states’-rights Democrat who favored keeping Washington’s nose out of Virginia’s business and working within the Union to resolve differences. He had no ideology; he was a Virginian. The cadets he taught, moreover—part of that great mass of young men who would do most of the war’s fighting—would have had little understanding of the freakish political complexity of the Compromise of 1850, for example, which attempted to settle the question of slavery in what was essentially the entire American Southwest, plus California. Most would have been unable to parse the meaning of “states’ rights” in the federal Constitution, or fully grasp the reasons for the disastrous splintering of the Democratic Party in 1860—a carefully planned conspiracy intended to inspire Southern secession—which had guaranteed the victory of Abraham Lincoln. Virginians were not stupid; they just had more provincial and personal views of the world than the men who rode to battle in the halls of Congress.
Nor were the Virginians inclined as a whole to buy the idea, hawked loudly by the states of the lower South, that Lincoln’s election meant that the federal government was going to free the slaves and forcibly mix the two races. Lincoln had denied this categorically in his inaugural address. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly,” he said on March 4, 1861, little more than a month before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, “to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Neither Jackson nor most of his fellow citizens in Lexington believed that the war was about staving off the immediate abolition of slavery. By and large, they abhorred the idea of secession.
What made Jackson and his cadets want to fight, amid all this swirl of rhetoric, belief, ideology, and implicit threat, were events much closer to home…. — from Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson
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The featured image is a daguerreotype by H. B. Hull, c. 1855, that Thomas Jonathan Jackson made as a memento for his aunt and uncle while visiting them in the summer of 1855. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.