Referendum on Taxation of Slaves
During the debates about the sectional crisis and secession that took place in Richmond in the winter and spring of 1861, several prominent delegates from western and northwestern Virginia interrupted to insist that the convention submit to the voters for ratification an amendment to the state constitution requiring that all personal property be taxed at its market value. Many items of personal property were taxed, including horses, gold watches, and pianos. Enslaved African Americans were considered items of personal property and taxed, too. The Constitution of 1851 had placed a limit of $300 on the value of each slave for tax purposes, which meant that people and corporations that owned large numbers of slaves paid taxes on a smaller proportion of their personal property than people who owned few or no slaves. Because of the rise in the market value of enslaved people to meet the demand for laborers in other southern slave states, the value of slaves often far exceeded the $300 limit on their taxable value.
Debate on the tax proposal occupied more time during the convention than any other subject except secession and sectional reconciliation. Supporters of the change in tax policy argued that the limitation unfairly imposed higher taxes on the majority of Virginians who owned few or no slaves than on the minority of Virginians who owned a larger number of enslaved people. Those who owned enslaved people were an even smaller minority of the white population in the mountain and Ohio Valley regions of the state than elsewhere. Supporters of the amendment also charged that eastern planters, who profited most from the limitation on taxation of slaves, had been so influential in the General Assembly that the tax money disproportionately paid by westerners and nonslave owners got spent for construction of railroads, canals, and public improvements in the East that were of no value to residents in the West, who received no benefits from the tax money that they paid.
Most eastern delegates opposed the amendment because the convention had been called to deal with the secession crisis, not to change state policy on taxation or on any other subject. They also argued that if owners of slaves had to pay higher taxes on their enslaved laborers it would cost the owners more in taxes than the income they derived from their slaves' labor, and that would bankrupt businesses and planters, drive them out of the state, or perhaps make slavery so unprofitable that the proposed tax policy would eventually abolish slavery in Virginia.
Shortly before the first session of the Virginia Convention adjourned on May 1, 1861, the delegates adopted a constitutional amendment to require that all personal property be taxed at its full market value and submitted the amendment to a ratification referendum to be held on May 23. The willingness of many western Unionists to change their votes and support secession on April 17 or soon afterward evidently persuaded enough reluctant eastern delegates to grant the westerners' demands that the amendment passed the convention.
Virginia voters ratified the constitutional amendment on May 23, 1861. The official returns from the 124 counties and the 2 cities that reported yielded a total of 111,854 votes for the amendment and 16,745 votes against. The taxation amendment passed by a margin similar to the one by which the voters ratified the Ordinance of Secession. Voting men in the Ohio Valley counties and in the counties bordering Pennsylvania who overwhelmingly opposed secession that day for the most part approved the taxation amendment. Most voters everywhere else overwhelmingly approved secession, but in many instances in the eastern counties the voters cast an appreciable number of votes against the taxation amendment.