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John Botts

Union or Secession
John Minor Botts (1802–1869). Image in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
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John Minor Botts (1802–1869). Image in Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
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JOHN MINOR BOTTS (1802–1869)

John Minor Botts (16 September 1802–8 January 1869), member of the House of Representatives and member of the Convention of 1850–1851, was born at Dumfries, the son of Benjamin Gaines Botts and Jane Tyler Botts. After his parents died in the Richmond Theatre fire on 26 December 1811, he and his siblings were raised by relatives in Fredericksburg. His brothers included Alexander Lithgow Botts, who served on the Council of State, and Charles Tyler Botts, founder of the Southern Planter, an agricultural journal. Botts read law for six weeks and in 1820 was admitted to the bar. On 13 or 14 May 1822 he married Mary Whiting Blair. They had four sons and three daughters. Botts practiced law in Richmond until 1826, when he moved to Half Sink, his Henrico County plantation, where he raised racehorses and farmed using progressive agricultural techniques of the kind advocated in the Southern Planter.

In 1831 Botts ran unsuccessfully to represent Henrico County in the House of Delegates, but he was elected in 1833 and again in 1834. He lost to William B. Randolph in 1835 but challenged the result and was seated on 24 December. Botts was reelected in 1836 but defeated by William N. Whiting the next year. Botts again successfully challenged the result and was seated on 20 January 1838. He won his last term later in 1838. During his first four assembly terms Botts served on the Committee of Schools and Colleges, and during his final term he sat on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances. Botts emerged as a spirited and partisan legislator. Although his positions on national issues were often more consistent with those of the Democratic Party, he aligned himself instead with the Whig Party and remained a member until its demise. Unlike most other Whigs, Botts opposed the Second Bank of the United States on constitutional grounds, but he also opposed President Andrew Jackson's veto of the bill to recharter the bank, arguing that Jackson had usurped the power of Congress. During the panic of 1837, Botts favored legislation to relieve state banks of the need to make specie payments and blamed the financial distress of the state and the country on the Democrats. Botts so hated the Democratic Party that the rest of his political career might be defined simply as anti-Democrat in spirit. His frequent publication of his speeches as pamphlets or in the newspapers made his hostility to the Democratic Party widely known.

U.S. House of Representatives

Botts represented the counties of Charles City, Hanover, Henrico, and New Kent and the city of Richmond in the House of Representatives from 1839 to 1843. During his first term he sat on the Committees on Commerce and on Elections, and during his second he served on the Committee on the Currency and was the second-ranking member to Millard Fillmore on the Committee on Ways and Means. Botts continued to be highly partisan but often acted in unexpected ways. He was one of the few southern representatives to oppose the Democrats' so-called gag rule prohibiting receipt of antislavery petitions. Although himself a slaveholder, Botts argued that the rule violated the right of petition and maintained that hearing petitions against slavery would act as a safety valve releasing abolitionist pressures and preventing sectional agitation. Botts changed his mind on fundamental issues several times. In 1841 he reversed his earlier opposition and declared himself in favor of a national bank. When John Tyler (1790–1862) vetoed a bank bill that year Botts was so angry at what he considered a betrayal of the Whig Party's interests that in 1842 he attempted to impeach the president. A portrait of Botts painted probably in that year depicts him carrying a scroll reading, "I impeach John Tyler."

Defeated for reelection in 1843, Botts remained in the public eye with speeches against the annexation of Texas. He later wrote of his conviction that the Democrats, controlled by John C. Calhoun, had used the Texas issue to divide the Union. Botts was reelected to Congress in 1847 and chaired the Committee on Military Affairs, using this position during the war with Mexico to support the army rather than to oppose the war. He later declared that he would gladly pay Mexico to take back the territory that the United States acquired at the war's end. Botts lost his reelection bid in 1849.

The Convention of 1850–1851

In 1850 Botts was one of six men elected to represent the city of Richmond and the counties of Charles City, Henrico, and New Kent in a state constitutional convention that met from 14 October 1850 to 1 August 1851. He served as chairman of the Committee on the Bill of Rights and proposed or supported such reforms as abolition of the governor's Council and ending capital punishment and also imprisonment for debt. Botts suggested requiring that before slaves could be emancipated, their owners first either arrange for their emigration from the United States or provide for their support if the General Assembly permitted them to remain in Virginia. He also proposed restricting the ability of the assembly to incur a public debt or tax property at different rates in different regions of the state. Unlike many other members from eastern and central Virginia, Botts supported extending the suffrage to all adult white men and the popular election of more public officers, including the governor. He voted for the constitution that the convention successfully submitted to a public referendum.

In 1852 Botts attended the last national convention of the Whig Party and was the only southern delegate who voted for Winfield Scott, a Virginia native who became the party's presidential nominee. The breakup of the Whig Party left Botts with what he called a choice between the "Know-Nothings on the one hand and the Good-for-Nothings on the other." Still a passionate opponent of the Democratic Party, Botts ran for Congress in 1854 on the American (Know Nothing) Party ticket but was defeated. His opposition later in the decade to the proslavery constitution proposed for the new state of Kansas made him increasingly unpopular in Virginia. Nevertheless, in 1858 a group of southern Unionists began a movement to nominate Botts for president in 1860 as a national rather than a sectional candidate, a man they hoped could unite the old Whigs, the Know Nothings, and the new Republicans. Anna Ella Carroll, a leading Know Nothing pamphleteer from Maryland, actively promoted Botts as a unifying candidate, but the Republicans instead selected Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, and most southern Unionists and former Know Nothings supported John Bell, of Tennessee, the Constitutional Union Party candidate. Carroll came to believe that Botts was too outspoken and brusque to attract wide support. After his death an appreciative obituary reflected that sentiment, stating that "his nature was too despotic for success" and that voters often "rebelled against his egotism and self-will."

The Secession Crisis and Civil War

With the election of Lincoln, Botts predicted the immediate secession of the South and called for Virginia to resist the siren song of South Carolina fire-eaters. Defeated as a Unionist candidate for his state's convention on the question of secession, Botts railed against disunion in letters to the newspapers and once again blamed the Democratic Party for the failure of all compromise proposals. Lincoln briefly considered but decided against including him in his cabinet. In April 1861 Botts met privately with the president, who described to him an interview he had had on 4 April with Botts's fellow Unionist John Brown Baldwin, a member of the Virginia secession convention. Because Botts and Baldwin subsequently recalled the events in dramatically different ways, the meeting between Lincoln and Baldwin has long been controversial. As related by Botts in his memoirs, Lincoln told Baldwin that he would evacuate Fort Sumter if the Virginia convention would adjourn without taking the state out of the Union. Botts also maintained that Baldwin kept this offer secret, with the implication that as a result the Virginia convention voted to secede. Botts may have misrepresented Lincoln's suggestion, but Lincoln may also have left Botts and Baldwin with different impressions of his options.

After Virginia seceded, Botts proposed a constitutional amendment to allow the Southern states to withdraw from the Union peacefully. He retired to his farm in Henrico County but continued to speak his mind against both the war and the Confederacy in writings that made him a highly visible target for Confederate officials. On 2 March 1862, the day after Jefferson Davis declared martial law in and around Richmond, Botts was arrested by order of the secretary of war and jailed in a prison formerly reserved for slaves. He was not released until 29 April, and he remained under house arrest in Richmond for four months more. Botts then retired to a farm he had recently acquired in Culpeper County, where he witnessed nine engagements between Union and Confederate armies. He entertained generals from both sides and fed troops from his farm's produce, but he excluded from his hospitality Confederate general James Ewell Brown Stuart, whose troops had trampled Botts's grounds and who briefly had him placed under arrest.

In 1864 the General Assembly of the Restored government, meeting in Alexandria, named Botts to the United States Senate, but he declined. He reentered politics after the war with a plan for reconstruction that included the gradual emancipation of slaves and the enfranchisement of some African Americans. Botts presided over a Unionist conference in May 1866 on those issues and later led the Virginia delegation to a convention of Southern Loyalists in Philadelphia, where he argued against universal manhood suffrage. A leader of the so-called cooperationists, he lost his bid to direct the Southern Union Republican Party to more radical elements of the National Republican Party that promoted both black suffrage and the disfranchisement of all former Confederates. Recognizing the success of the Radicals, Botts at last embraced their positions and joined them, running unsuccessfully on their platform in the October 1867 election of delegates to a Virginia state constitutional convention. He also spoke in favor of their policies at a state Republican meeting in February 1868.

After the Civil War Botts completed and in 1866 published his memoirs to vindicate his political career and to castigate the political leaders with whom he had come into conflict. The title, typical of his style, was The Great Rebellion: Its Secret History, Rise, Progress, and Disastrous Failure. John Minor Botts died on 8 January 1869 at his farm in Culpeper County. His body lay in state at the Capitol and was buried in Shockoe Cemetery in Richmond.

Contributed by Janet L. Coryell

Quotations in New York Times, 21 Nov. 1854 (first quotation); Richmond Whig, 9 Jan. 1869 (second and third quotations).

This biography, with a bibliographical note, appears in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), 2:114–117.

Copyright 2001 by the Library of Virginia. All rights reserved.