In pre-Civil War 1840s-50s, legislative resolutions seemed to be a prevalent method for expressing a state government’s public position on an issue.

Pick up the telephone; send a text, tweet, video, or email.  Today’s communication presents numerous choices for state governments to let its constituents and other states’ officials know their political positions.

However in pre-Civil War 1840s-50s, legislative resolutions seemed to be a prevalent method for expressing a state government’s public position on an issue.  Once approved by the state legislature, these resolutions were generally sent to the rest of the state governors, to be forwarded to their respective state legislatures for appropriate responses.   Other resolutions were intended to instruct that state’s senators or representatives in the United States Congress on proposals or positions on specific federal legislation.  Early State Records provides a great sampling of these resolutions from Virginia, as well as containing Virginia’s reactions to those from other states. 

An interesting international example can be found in a series of Virginian resolutions, passed around 1842, following a November 1841 mutiny by slaves on the brig Creole.  These slaves, originally bound for sale in New Orleans from Richmond, subsequently escaped to Nassau, a British colony.  As slavery was banned in this colony the local British government refused to return them to the United States.  Given the standoff, these Virginian resolutions instructed their Congressional members to seek payment, via federal statutes for the owners' losses as well as other actions (see LLMC #23235). 

Resolutions sent to states to support or to admonish specific behavior also occurred.  In 1840, there was a series of correspondences between the Virginia governor, Thomas W. Gilmore, and the New York governor, William Seward, regarding the return of certain runaway slaves.  Interestingly, the governor of New York delayed his response to Virginia’s specific request for many months, ultimately refusing to cooperate in the return of the slaves.  Gilmore then contacted both his state legislature and other slaveholding states for support in his quest for the return of the runaway slaves (LLMC #23172).

In response, other southern states passed resolutions in support of Virginia’s demand.  In LLMC #23194, the governor of Georgia sent an 1841 communication and attached message from the Georgia legislature to the Virginia governor, supporting the return of fugitives from Northern states and condemning the refusal to do so.  This position was subsequently bolstered by the December 1841 South Carolina General Assembly’s reports and resolutions, sent to the Virginia governor and legislature.  Included was an act "to prevent persons from New York from carrying slaves out of the state,” a result of this fugitive slave conflict between Virginia and New York.  This document also contained correspondence from the South Carolina governor which indicated that the law would be suspended if the fugitives were returned (LLMC #23233).

Even cities utilized this system of resolutions.  A March 17, 1842 public meeting of the citizens of Richmond in support of slavery and against New York and the British government for refusing to return fugitive slaves resulted in a number of resolutions.  Complaining of various incidents of runaway slaves, these city resolutions requested that state and federal officials pass laws to tighten escape routes and protect Virginian slave property (LLMC #23251). 

These and other resolutions (see, for example LLMC #23275, 23269, 23252, 23285, 23193) dealt with a plethora of issues – from tariffs, proportional shares in the sale of public lands, to  honoring Revolutionary soldiers.  All appeared to allow the resolving entity to express its opinion, seek support, or otherwise present its case.  Early State Records present a slower paced, but relevant, reaction to a state’s concerns and political positions.  Virginia is a great example of this method. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1028 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  At the time of this article, LLMC is completing the sixty-nine Virginia reels.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as the broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law