JOHN LETCHER was born in Lexington, Virginia. He studied briefly at Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), and went on to become a lawyer. An activist in the Democratic Party, he edited one of its newspapers, the Valley Star, for several years, and was involved in the presidential campaigns of 1840, 1844, and 1848. He was elected to Congress in 1851, winning reelection three times. Although he denounced abolitionists, he eventually supported restraint and compromise. After winning election as governor in 1858, he resisted breaking from the Union but acted decisively to lead Virginia into the Confederacy when the state convention voted for secession. However, his efforts to integrate the state’s armed forces into the Confederacy, which included reluctantly backing Jefferson Davis’s plan for a military draft, met with resistance in his home community of Shenandoah Valley, and he lost his reelection bid in 1863, returning to his family in Lexington. When the Confederacy collapsed, Letcher was arrested and briefly confined in a prison in Washington, DC. After being released, he returned to the practice in law and returned briefly to politics, serving as a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1875 to 1877. He also served as President of the Virginia Military Institute for fourteen years.
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