The Reluctant Secessionist
John Janney, though born in Alexandria in 1798, lived most of his life in Loudoun County. At the age of 18, he studied law under Richard Henderson in Leesburg and quickly became one of the “rising stars” of the state’s Whig Party. In 1831, he helped to draft a Bill for the General Assembly to abolish slavery in the state. From 1833 to 1845, he served as a Loudoun delegate to that body’s lower house. In 1839, Janney narrowly missed being selected as William Henry Harrison’s running mate in the presidential election of 1840. Harrison was elected but died soon after taking office, moving his vice president, Virginian John Tyler, into the White House in his stead.
In 1850, Janney served as one of Loudoun’s representatives to the convention drafting a new state constitution. Despite the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s, he remained a devoted Unionist, firmly opposed to all talk of secession throughout the bloody years of civil war in Kansas and the shock of John Brown’s raid on the Federal Arsenal at nearby Harpers Ferry. Early in 1861, Janney was selected, along with fellow Unionist John Armistead Carter, to represent Loudoun County in the state’s Secession Convention. Because he was so well respected by even his political opponents, he was chosen to serve as president of the convention. Although he voted twice against secession, he agreed after the April 17th vote in which an 88 to 55 majority of the delegates favored leaving the Union, to change his vote to make it unanimous. One of Janney’s final acts as convention president was to offer Col. Robert E. Lee command of Virginia’s military forces. John Janney writes his wife in Leesburg, “I have used every faculty that I possess to prevent this catastrophe . . .”
John Janney took no active part in the war, preferring to return to his law practice in Leesburg while continuing to vow loyalty to his native state. When General Lee led his army through Leesburg on the way into Maryland in 1862, the only social call he made was a visit with John Janney in his home. After the war, Janney quietly continued practicing law until his death in 1872.