All around us, we see historical figures being reappraised.
In some cases, that means men once deemed heroes are being judged with more critical eyes. Some students at Washington & Lee University no longer want pictures of George Washington and Robert E. Lee on their diplomas. In some places, public buildings are being renamed (Roanoke no longer has a Stonewall Jackson Middle School) and statues are being taken down.
In other cases, we see new heroes — and heroines — being elevated. Roanoke’s courthouse is now named after the civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill who grew up in the city. Richmond has new statues, including the first seven of an eventual 12 women honored by the Virginia Women’s Monument Commission.
Think what you will about taking down certain monuments, but it seems an undeniable good that we are moving to recognize a more complete accounting of our past.
As the examples above suggest, many of the new figures being held up for honors are women and minorities, whose contributions to our shared history have often been passed over in our official recognitions. It may seem counter to that spirit then that we propose a certain dead white male be officially honored. Hear us out, though. Here’s why Virginia should do something to formally recognize John Underwood.
In a state that embraced the enslavement of fellow human beings, Underwood was the state’s most prominent voice for abolishing that foul institution — for which he was threatened by a mob and forced to flee his home. In a state that wanted to restore the antebellum social order, Underwood oversaw the writing of a new constitution that sought to guarantee a more democratic society. At a time when the idea of women’s suffrage was still a fringe idea for many, Underwood pushed — alas, unsuccessfully — for Virginia to be the first to grant women the right to vote.
In short, Underwood was on what today we’d call “the right side of history.” For that, he was officially vilified. Virginia’s history textbooks from the 1950s singled out Underwood as a villain because his views on racial equality ran counter to those of the state’s white establishment under the political machine of U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. More to the point, those textbooks taught a generation of Virginians outright lies about Underwood, calling him “a fortune hunter from New York” who “told Northerners false tales about the cruelty of Virginians” toward its enslaved African Americans. No other figure from the Reconstruction era was singled out for opprobrium in the official textbooks the way Underwood was, a sly recognition of the influence he had in his day.
Virginia has formally apologized to those who were unwillingly sterilized under the state’s embrace of racist eugenics policies. It is difficult to compare the harm done to the bodies of living people to the harm done to the reputation of a dead man, but the precedent of an apology has still been set. After former U.S. Labor Secretary Ray Donovan was acquitted on fraud charges in 1987, he asked: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” The same question applies here, except we have a clearer answer. Virginia, through official acts of state government, besmirched Underwood’s name. Virginia, through official acts of state government, could restore it.
There is not a single public building named after Underwood — although there is a high school named after the vigilante leader who chased him from the state. There is not a single highway that bears Underwood’s name — although there is one named after that aforementioned vigilante leader. There is no monument that memorializes Underwood in marble or bronze — although there is a monument to, yes, that vigilante leader who went on to become a Confederate officer. There is not even a historical marker noting Underwood’s life. A General Assembly resolution honoring Underwood would not correct any of those omissions but would, at least, be a start.
Let’s briefly review Underwood’s career. Yes, he was born in New York in 1809 but moved to Virginia at some point in the late 1840s or early 1850s. He married a cousin of the future Stonewall Jackson and set about farming and practicing law in Clarke County. Underwood had long viewed slavery as an evil and when the Republican Party was formed, he became an enthusiastic member. He attended the party’s first national convention — in Philadelphia in 1856 — and delivered such a passionate speech against slavery that he put his own life in danger. “The effect of this speech in Virginia was like the upsetting of a beehive,” the The New York Times wrote years later in his obituary. “There were threats that he should be met and lynched on his return, and his wife in alarm telegraphed to him the danger, and begged him not to return till matters were more composed.” A group of pro-slavery adherents held a meeting and passed a resolution that first endorsed slavery and then declared the county “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.” The meeting appointed a committee of 12 to deal with Underwood. Their chairman was one Turner Ashby, for whom a high school in Rockingham County and a road in Henry County are now named. After the election, Underwood returned to Clarke County — and Ashby’s vigilantes again threatened violence. Underwood left the state and didn’t return until the Civil War.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln rewarded Underwood by naming him a federal judge for the portion of Northern Virginia that was then under Union control. Underwood’s real contribution, though, came when he chaired the convention that produced Virginia’s post-war constitution. Underwood ran the convention so firmly that the product became known as “the Underwood convention.” It was a landmark document that granted the right to vote to African-Americans, set up free public schools, established a secret ballot, and required local governments to be elected (previously they’d been run by judges). Underwood also urged granting women the right to vote, but couldn’t persuade his fellow delegates to go that far. When he returned to the bench, Underwood declared that racial segregation on railcars was “a relic of barbarism” but was overruled by a higher court. Underwood wasn’t perfect; no politicians are. Still, we must ask, more than a century and a half after the fact: Why isn’t this man an official Virginia hero?