George William Summers (4 March 1804–19 September 1868), member of the House of Representatives, of the Convention of 1850–1851, and of the Convention of 1861, was born in Fairfax County and was the son of Ann Smith Radcliff Summers and George Summers, who represented the county in the House of Delegates for four terms. In 1814 the family moved to Walnut Grove in the part of Kanawha County that in 1848 became Putnam County. Following the death of his father early in 1818, Summers and his mother lived in Charleston with his eldest brother, Lewis Summers, later a member of the Convention of 1829–1830.
Summers attended Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) during the 1820–1821 academic year before enrolling in Ohio University. He received an A.B. in 1825, and the university awarded him an A.M. five years later without further study. Summers returned to Charleston to read law under the instruction of his brother and was admitted to the Kanawha County bar in 1827. On 14 February 1833 he married Amacetta Laidley, who was a few weeks short of her fifteenth birthday. Of their four sons and two daughters, only one son reached adulthood.
In 1830 Kanawha County voters elected Summers to the first of two consecutive one-year terms in the House of Delegates. During the debates on the future of slavery in January 1832, following Nat Turner's Rebellion, Summers, who then owned no slaves, declared that an antislavery petition before the House was destined to be the starting point of the abolition movement in the United States. Evoking "the great principles of eternal justice, which demand at our hands the release of this people" from slavery, he argued for gradual emancipation, and he cautioned slaveholders that all property was subordinate to the general welfare of the community in which it existed. Summers voted with the minority for proposals anticipating the abolition of slavery.
The House of Representatives, 1841–1844
After serving additional terms in the House of Delegates for the 1834–1835 and 1835–1836assemblies, Summers won election in April 1841 to the House of Representatives from the Nineteenth District, comprising Cabell, Fayette, Giles, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Logan, Monroe, and Nicholas Counties. He served on the standing Committees on Elections and for the District of Columbia, of which he was ranking member, and on select committees on the apportionment of representatives and on retrenchment, which he chaired. As a Whig, he supported tariffs to protect domestic manufactures, and in July 1842 he criticized President John Tyler's veto of a provisional tariff bill as an abuse of the veto power and obstruction of the popular will. In 1843 Summers won reelection by a comfortable margin to represent a redrawn Fourteenth District, composed of Braxton, Cabell, Fayette, Harrison, Jackson, Kanawha, Lewis, Mason, Nicholas, Ritchie, Wayne, and Wood Counties and also a portion of Barbour County. He sat on the Committee on the Judiciary. Early in 1844 Summers condemned as an ugly form of nullification the actions that several states had taken in declaring a congressional reapportionment act unconstitutional. He did not seek reelection in 1845.
The Convention of 1850–1851
In 1848 Summers won election as commonwealth's attorney for the new county of Putnam. On 22 August 1850 he received the most votes of the four men elected to represent Fayette, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Nicholas, Pocahontas, and Raleigh Counties in a convention that met in Richmond from 14 October 1850 to 1 August 1851 to revise the state constitution. A brilliant debater and an eloquent orator, Summers played a leading role in championing western interests, including universal white manhood suffrage. Many observers considered him the ablest man in the convention. Named to a committee charged with devising a method by which to amend the constitution, Summers also chaired the important Committee on the Basis and Apportionment of Representation. The committee proved unable to forge a compromise acceptable to western reformers, who insisted that apportionment of seats in the General Assembly should be based on the white population only, and also to eastern opponents of reform, who favored a mixed basis of calculating representation on the total white population plus the value of taxes paid on property, including slaves.
Seeking to break the deadlock, Summers proposed on 8 May that the new constitution be submitted to the voters with an option at the ratification referendum to choose between eastern and western apportionment proposals, but the other delegates defeated his suggestion. As chair of a select committee of four western and four eastern delegates, he helped fashion another plan for representation in the legislature, but that measure failed by a single vote. On 16 May the convention adopted a compromise plan of apportionment based in part on his committee's work that shifted some political power from the East to the West by allowing a western majority in the House of Delegates and preserving an eastern majority in the Senate of Virginia. The constitution also authorized a referendum in 1865 on whether to adopt one of three options for future apportionment of assembly seats. On 31 July 1851 Summers voted for the new constitution that the voters ratified later that year.
Campaigning for governor, 1851
His reputation at its peak, Summers was the Whig Party's candidate in 1851 when for the first time Virginia's voters elected the governor, but his earlier advocacy of gradual emancipation dogged his campaign. In a published letter he refuted allegations that he was an abolitionist by pointing out that he had voted to insert in the Constitution of 1851 a provision that prohibited emancipation and by adding that as a slaveholder (in 1850 he paid taxes on five slaves) in the largest slaveholding county in the West he opposed schemes that adversely affected the value or compromised the security of slave property. Summers lost the governor's race to Joseph Johnson, a western Virginia Democrat, by a vote of 65,527 to 57,040.
In May 1852 Summers was elected judge of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit. He resigned on 1 July 1858, two years before the end of his term. During those years sectional antagonism within the nation deepened. Summers made his views known in a speech in May 1860 to the Old Dominion Society in New York City. His meditation on Virginia's past included both a defense of slavery, which he believed by then to be a beneficial institution protected by constitutional provisions, and an attack on disunion. Summers declared that "modern heresies of nullification and secession are alike unknown to the Constitution."
The Convention of 1861 and the Peace Conference
On 4 February 1861 Kanawha County voters elected Summers as one of their two delegates to a convention that the General Assembly had called to act for the state during the secession crisis, and on the same day he took his seat as one of five men the assembly had named to represent the state at a national peace conference. More than a hundred men from twenty other states, most of them from the North, met in Washington, D.C., and chose former president John Tyler as presiding officer. Summers chaired the Committee on Credentials, but he made a quick trip to Richmond to take his seat in the Virginia convention on 13 February and nominated John Janney, a fellow Whig and opponent of secession, for president of the convention.
On 15 February the Peace Conference's Committee on Resolutions submitted a compromise proposal that, if passed by Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, would have been a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution. Similar to proposals that the House of Representatives had already failed to pass, it would have restored the Missouri Compromise division between free and slave territories and states in the West and offered additional constitutional protection for slavery in the states where it then existed. Southern extremists rejected the compromise because it offered them too few incentives to return to the Union, and northern extremists rejected it because they believed that it was too much in the interest of slave owners. Both sides resisted the efforts of Summers and other opponents of secession to resolve their disagreements. In an emotional speech four days later, Summers pledged his devotion to the Union and affirmed his belief that if Congress submitted the amendment to the states, Virginia would ratify it. Dissenting from a majority of the Virginia delegates, he voted for the article, which failed to be adopted.
Summers and other moderates personally appealed to President-elect Abraham Lincoln to intervene, but the immediate crisis was averted when the conference reconsidered the article and adopted it by a single vote. Summers again dissented from the Virginia majority and cast his vote in favor of compromise proposals that later failed to pass the Senate and that the House of Representatives let die when it adjourned without taking a vote.
Summers returned to Richmond, where he established himself as the floor leader of the Unionists in the Virginia convention and defended the work of the conference against denunciations that Tyler and other Virginia members had made. On 11 March, Summers spoke for about five hours in praise of the conference and the provisions of the failed constitutional amendment. Painting an optimistic picture of Northern willingness to make accommodations to safeguard Southern interests, he pleaded with delegates to reject secession and warned that disunion would weaken Virginia economically and politically. Summers also sought to ease fears that Lincoln's inaugural pledge to secure government property in seceded states would lead to war. He declared that the president had neither the practical necessity to protect those properties nor the power to raise an army for that purpose.
Consulting with Seward and the Lincoln Administration
In March, Summers began consulting through intermediaries with William Henry Seward, a former Whig whom Lincoln appointed secretary of state. Summers and opponents of secession from both the Whig and the Democratic Parties met secretly with Seward to keep apprised of the administration's plans. Seward was probably the person who floated Summers's name for a seat in Lincoln's cabinet to give Southern Unionists a position in the administration, and he did recommend Summers for appointment to a vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Summers believed that the evacuation of army forts in the seceded states was essential to avoiding war. In mid-March, Unionists in the Virginia convention welcomed Seward's assurances that the administration would withdraw the garrison from Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, but within days Lincoln changed his mind, prompting Seward on 1 April to summon Summers to a meeting with the president. Unaware that Seward's telegram was a desperate attempt to reverse Lincoln's decision to hold and resupply Fort Sumter, Summers decided not to return to Washington because of important convention business. Two days later Summers declined an invitation from a Lincoln emissary and instead remained at the convention to vote against immediate secession. Lincoln had suggested that Summers send a representative should he be unable to attend, and a fellow Unionist, John Brown Baldwin, traveled to Washington in his place. On 4 April, Summers voted with a majority when the convention rejected a motion to secede.
Summers and the other Unionists in the convention drafted compromise proposals in hopes that one of them would bring the nation back together. He approved of the report, introduced by the convention's Committee on Federal Relations and on 13 April adopted by the convention, that contained provisions similar to those that the Peace Conference had proposed and that Congress had rejected. Events in South Carolina destroyed their efforts for peace. Following the surrender of Fort Sumter, Lincoln called on the states for troops to enforce federal law and suppress the rebellion, an action that ignited an outcry in Virginia. Popular opposition to secession collapsed in much of eastern and central Virginia. On 17 April, Summers voted with the minority when the convention submitted an ordinance of secession to the voters for ratification.
A Final Plea and Resignation
Two days later Summers made a final plea that the convention also submit to the voters a constitutional amendment to repeal a clause in the Constitution of 1851 that placed a limit of $300 on the value of slaves for taxation purpose and required that all other personal property be taxed at its full market value. He and other western delegates charged that the limitation resulted in unfairly high taxation of the personal property of western Virginians, who owned few or no slaves. Summers expressed his hope that the Confederate states might yet reunite with those in the Union and so avoid a bloody and destructive war. He vowed to do whatever possible in the convention to ensure Virginia's future in the dramatically changed circumstances.
In the statewide referendum on 23 May, Kanawha County voters rejected secession by 520 to 1,697 but, along with a majority of the state's other voters, ratified the constitutional amendment on taxation. A few days later Summers resigned from the convention. Citing concerns for his family, he stated in a public letter that he had intended to return to Richmond for the June session to participate in revising the state constitution, but he may have been fearful for his own safety. The issue of the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in which he printed the explanation for his resignation also published an editorial that, while professing admiration for his intellect, described him as a timid man, a follower who lacked the moral character to provide the leadership the times demanded. To his critics, Summers's acceptance of the Confederacy as a political reality and his efforts to dissuade Union troops from entering the northwestern counties proved his treachery.
Criticism, Assessment, and Justification
Granville Davisson Hall, then a reporter for the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, later portrayed Summers inaccurately in a history of the founding of West Virginia as having been, in effect, a secessionist. Hall insinuated that Summers had been part of a conspiracy to instigate the firing on Fort Sumter and force a call to arms in the North that would drive Virginia Unionists into the arms of the secessionists. He also accused Summers of having failed to stop the war by suppressing the compromise offer that Lincoln has allegedly made to Baldwin to evacuate Fort Sumter if the Virginia convention adjourned without voting for secession.
Summers was distraught by Virginia's departure from the Union, the solemnity of which he compared to the death of a family member, and he was further disheartened by the secession of the northwestern counties from Virginia. He did not participate in the formation of the Restored government in Wheeling and took no part in the creation of West Virginia. Shunning public life, Summers focused his energies on his law practice. In August 1863, at the urging of friends, he made a speech in Wheeling to clarify his conduct during the secession crisis and also his subsequent political inactivity. Summers declared to a large, receptive audience that he had no regrets and reaffirmed his devotion to the Union and his opposition to rebellion. To critics who had accused him of disloyalty, he pointed out that early in the war Confederate brigadier general Henry Alexander Wise had threatened to hang him. Summers's enemies regarded his speech as a failed bid for exculpation. Still, he was not without admirers, as indicated by the three votes that he received in the balloting for United States senator that month in the West Virginia legislature. That year his fifteen-year-old son died after running away to join the Confederate army.
One supportive contemporary observed that Summers was "a Union man with Southern sympathies" whose mixed loyalties "displeased the partisans on both sides, and this was his course throughout the war; his head and his heart were at variance, and were never fully reconciled." His wife died on 13 October 1867. George William Summers died on 19 September 1868 at his Charleston residence and was buried at the family cemetery at Walnut Grove, in Putnam County. In 1978 all the graves were moved to Spring Hill Cemetery, in Charleston. Summers County, West Virginia, was named for him at its creation in 1871.
Contributed by Donald W. Gunter
Quotations in Richmond Enquirer, 14 Feb. 1832 (first quotation); First Anniversary Address before the Old Dominion Society of the City of New-York by the Hon. George W. Summers of Virginia (1860), 59 (second quotation); Washington and Lee University Historical Papers 5 (1895): 23–25 (third quotation).
This biography was prepared for a forthcoming volume of John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ).
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