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John Janney

Union or Secession
John Janney (1798–1872). Engraving in <em>Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper</em>, March 23, 1861.
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John Janney (1798–1872). Engraving in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 23, 1861.
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    Ordinance of Secession (Enrolled Version)

JOHN JANNEY (1798–1872)

John Janney (8 November 1798–5 January 1872), member of the Convention of 1850–1851 and president of the Convention of 1861, was born in Alexandria and was the son of Elisha Janney, a descendent of a prominent Pennsylvania Quaker family, and his second wife, Mary Gibson Janney. His cousin Samuel McPherson Janney became a well-known minister, educator, and antislavery advocate. About 1810 the family settled in Loudoun County, and then during the 1820s Janney moved to Leesburg, the county seat. He read law under Richard Henry Henderson, later a member of the Convention of 1829–1830, and in December 1824 he received a license to practice. On 26 January 1826 Janney married Alcinda, or Alice, S. Marmaduke. They had no children.

Despite having been born a Quaker, Janney became a member of the Episcopal Church and also began purchasing slaves in the mid-1830s. He owned three enslaved adults and two children in 1860. Believing that colonization was a political and economic necessity, Janney served as a vice president of the Virginia Colonization Society several times during the 1850s.

Janney became involved in local and state politics almost immediately after beginning his law practice and often campaigned alongside Henderson. Janney opposed Andrew Jackson's policies and was an early member of the Whig Party. He won election to the House of Delegates in 1833 and reelection the following year. During both terms he served on the Committee for Courts of Justice. Much in demand as a speaker throughout Virginia, Janney campaigned at a seemingly endless succession of parades and barbecues. As a longtime supporter of Henry Clay, he was a Clay candidate for presidential elector in 1844 and a delegate to several Whig National Conventions.

The Convention of 1850–1851

Janney self-consciously styled himself as a disinterested politician in the Old Republican mold. He always professed an unwillingness to run unless drafted. On 22 August 1850 Janney polled the second-highest number of votes among seven candidates vying for three seats representing Loudoun County in a convention that met from 14 October 1850 to 1 August 1851 to revise the state constitution. He served as ranking member of the Committee on the Judiciary and often spoke during the debates. Unlike the other two Loudoun delegates, Janney supported a proposal to apportion seats in the General Assembly on a mixed basis of population and property that allowed extra representation for areas with large populations of slaves, a proposal that could also have resulted in an additional seat for Loudoun County and possible gains for the Whig Party. He voted on 16 May 1851 against the compromise apportionment plan that the convention adopted that allowed for a western majority in the House of Delegates but preserved an eastern majority in the Senate of Virginia. Unlike his two county colleagues, Janney voted on 31 July 1851 against the new constitution, which provided for universal white manhood suffrage and for the first time granted voters the right to elect justices of the peace (a proposal he had initially favored), appellate court judges, and also the governor and other principal state officials.

Speaking against the southern convention held in Nashville in 1850, Janney urged his fellow southerners to resist extremism, and he also spoke during the 1850s against congressional interference with slavery in the territories. He sought election to the Senate of Virginia in 1851, but like many fellow Whigs that year he lost. During that decade Janney became president of the Valley Bank, in Leesburg, and he also served as an officer of the Alexandria, Loudoun, and Hampshire Railroad.

The Presidential Election of 1860

Although Janney evidently retired from active politics after the 1852 presidential election and the subsequent collapse of the national Whig Party, the presidential election campaign of 1860 drew him back into politics. He was a founding member of the Loudoun Constitutional Union Party, not surprising given his longstanding dislike of the Democrats and that most other members of the party were former Whigs. After the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won election as president and talk of secession filled the South, Janney worked to keep Virginia in the Union. As a candidate for the convention called to act for Virginia during the secession crisis, he published a long letter at the end of January 1861 declaring that he opposed secession. "I yield to no man in my devotion to the Union," Janney wrote. "I do not think it possible to overestimate its blessings, or to exaggerate the evils that will result from its dissolution." He argued that the federal government should not use force to hold forts in the states that had seceded.

The Convention of 1861

On 4 February 1861 Loudoun voters chose Janney as one of the county's two convention delegates, and when the convention opened on 13 February, the former Whigs and Unionists who formed a large majority of the convention members elected him president. He took office with an emotional plea for preservation of the Union but took no role in the debates, even in the committee of the whole. He confined his complaints about secessionists and long-winded speakers to his private letters to his wife. Janney made no secret of his belief that Virginians would be better served by remaining in the Union. He was pleased when the convention voted against secession on 4 April, only to have his hopes for a negotiated peace dashed during the following two weeks when South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter and Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion. Despite Janney's last-minute speech from the floor in opposition and his vote against secession, the convention on 17 April voted to submit an ordinance of secession to the voters for ratification in a referendum on 23 May.

Deeply disappointed, Janney nevertheless threw his support behind the Confederacy. He explained in a public letter that "the destiny of Virginia is my destiny, and with her I shall sink or swim." He voted for secession in the referendum and signed the ordinance during the second session of the convention in June. Janney returned to Richmond again in November for the convention's third session, at which it debated amendments to the state constitution, but on 6 November he resigned as president, citing his poor health. He lived in Leesburg as a private citizen during the remaining years of the Civil War. His last public service was on a three-member commission in 1866 to investigate the possibility of reuniting Virginia and West Virginia. John Janney died on 5 January 1872 at his home in Leesburg and was buried in the town's Union Cemetery.

Contributed by Anne Sarah Rubin

Quotations in John Janney, "To People of Loudoun Co.," Leesburg Democratic Mirror, 30 Jan. 1861 (first quotation); Alexandria Gazette, 20 May 1861 (second 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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