If you went to school in Virginia anytime from the late ’50s until the early ’70s, you learned John Underwood’s name. You may have forgotten it because you weren’t paying attention in history class – a common problem, it seems, judging by how little people seem to actually understand parts of it – but the state of Virginia sure wanted us to learn Underwood’s name.
In my seventh-grade history textbook, he and his work is mentioned on 11 different pages, more times than James Monroe, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson – and they were all presidents – and one page less than James Madison, who might have done a few important things. The only difference is that all these mentions of Underwood were either unflattering or untrue or sometimes both.
Let’s not put too fine a point on it: Underwood was officially defamed in what amounted to state-sponsored propaganda – brainwashing, if you will.
The first reference to Underwood comes on page 454, in the chapter “After Appomattox,” where the textbook describes how Virginia and other Southern states were required to write new constitutions as a condition of being readmitted to the union. In Virginia, the convention was presided over by federal judge John Underwood, described as “a fortune hunter from New York” and “a carpetbagger who told Northerners false tales about the cruelty of Virginians toward Negroes.” (Pardon the archaic language, but this is how our textbooks put it.)
I count at least two outright lies right there.
The one thing that’s undeniably true is that Underwood was from New York, but he first moved to Virginia in the 1830s to teach school for two years – hardly a way to make a fortune either then or now, and decades before the events that made him famous, or for some infamous, but certainly important. He taught in Clarksburg – in what is now West Virginia – where his students included members of a certain Jackson family. The history buffs among us should instantly know that’s where Thomas J. Jackson grew up before he became known as Stonewall. Underwood moved back to New York to become a lawyer, but returned to Virginia long enough to marry one of his former pupils – OK, let’s not inquire too deeply into that – who happened to be a cousin of that future Confederate general. In 1849, he and his wife moved back to Virginia – to Clarke County – to farm and practice law.
What set Underwood apart from his neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley was not his New York birth but his politics. He was an abolitionist at a time when the South’s pro-slavery views were hardening. When the Republican Party was formed in 1856 as a distinctly anti-slavery party, Underwood signed up immediately and he became one of the party’s most enthusiastic spokesmen in Virginia. He went to the party’s first presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia and delivered such a stirring speech against slavery that The New York Times later reported: “The effect of this speech in Virginia was like the upsetting of a beehive.” A group of local pro-slavery advocates held a meeting and passed a resolution declaring that they “will not longer tolerate the presence of John C. Underwood” and that “if he dare return to reside we will take steps to eject him, peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.” Let’s be clear about what was happening here: Vigilantes who objected to Underwood’s political views threatened harm. Their leader was a fellow named Turner Ashby. Today, he has a high school named after him in Rockingham County. Some may raise the question of why the county is honoring a Confederate, but there’s another question that should be asked: Why is the county honoring a vigilante leader?
Underwood thought it best not to return home until after the election that year – which Democrat James Buchanan won. Ashby and his fellow thugs again threatened violence, so Underwood left again – run out of Virginia for his political views. In 1859, after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Gov. Henry Wise ordered Underwood’s property confiscated and his family (who had stayed behind) evicted. Today, Wise has a county named after him. Underwood spent 1860 campaigning in the border states for Abraham Lincoln and gave what is considered the only speech in favor of Lincoln ever given in Virginia, when he dared cross the state line back into Bellton, in the northern panhandle of what today is West Virginia. As president, Lincoln rewarded Underwood with a federal judgeship in the eastern part of Virginia that was under Union control. Underwood was a man ahead of his times. He advocated full citizenship and suffrage for newly freed slaves before that was the law. He criticized Virginia from barring Black witnesses from testifying against white defendants. Some wanted Underwood to be named the military governor of post-war Virginia. Instead, he did something more important: He presided over the state’s constitutional convention.
Our textbooks taught us a dim view of that constitution. The document was certainly controversial because parts of it – which eventually got voted down – would have disenfranchised virtually everyone who had served the Confederacy. Here’s what we weren’t taught, though: That constitution brought democracy to Virginia. Before the war, local governing bodies had been appointed. Under this constitution, they were elected. It also established the secret ballot. The constitution set up a public school system and allowed Black men to vote – those were requirements for being readmitted to the Union – but if Underwood had had his way, Virginia would have become the first state in the Union to allow women to vote. That innovation proved too much for the times. Instead, Virginia women had to wait until the 19th Amendment to U.S. Constitution in 1920 forced the state to allow them to vote.
We often forget that for a brief time following Reconstruction, Virginia had a progressive, multiracial government under the Readjusters, a party that united newly enfranchised Black citizens with white small farmers and businessmen in western Virginia who had long chafed under the rule of the state’s plantation elite. In time, those Readjusters turned into Republicans and a conservative Democratic Party regained power, and had no intention of relinquishing it. Through the late 1800s, Virginia’s leaders chafed under a constitution that, in their view, contained a fatal flaw: It allowed Black Virginians to vote.
That culminated in a 1902 constitutional convention – we’re coming up on the 120th anniversary of that abomination. Our textbooks taught us only that “the purpose of the convention was to correct certain undesirable parts of the Underwood Constitution of Reconstruction days.” Let’s let one of the leaders of that convention describe his purpose in less diplomatic language: “Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose,” declared Carter Glass of Lynchburg. “To remove every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” And that’s exactly what the 1902 convention did: It disenfranchised both Black voters and many white voters, particularly in Southwest Virginia, which had the temerity to occasionally vote Republican. The voting rolls were cut in half, and Virginia’s status as a one-party oligarchy was solidified until Linwood Holton finally broke through in 1969. One of Holton’s lesser-known acts: He ordered the state textbooks that taught all this propaganda retired. (Rex Springston wrote an excellent history of those textbooks for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)
When I was editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times, I often wrote that Underwood has been overlooked in Virginia history – except, of course, when he was being officially maligned. I often made the case that Underwood deserved a historical marker at least, something named after him at best. There are still those who see history through the lens of the Lost Cause. One letter to the editor I received said that “naming a school after Underwood now would be an abomination.” I often wondered why no one was willing to take up Underwood’s cause. Turns out, though, someone was listening, I just didn’t know it. This week the state Department of Historic Resources announced that it had approved a historical marker to Underwood in Clarke County. When I asked who proposed the marker – often these are the result of some local initiative – spokesman Randall Jones sent this word: “DHR sponsored the marker, so we were paying attention to your editorials in addition to internal push for it. It was time to highlight the Underwood Constitution!”
Indeed it is.
In Charlottesville, the group that bought the city’s Robert E. Lee statue plans to melt it down and then create new artwork. I’m sympathetic to the emotions behind that but destroying art, no matter how offensive, is disquieting. This strikes me as not much different from book-burning, just from another political direction. If it’s going to happen, though, this would be one way to achieve the next logical step we need: a statue to John Underwood.