By DAVID JAVERSAK
In the 1960s, the definitive textbook history of the United States in the mid-19th century - James Randall and David Donald's "The Civil War and Reconstruction" - described statehood for West Virginia as "an offspring of a species of legal fiction." Other writers have been less kind, branding the state's creation as unconstitutional and illegal.
West Virginia's Archives and History website contains an expansive account of statehood and key primary documents. It is provocatively titled "A State of Convenience." The locus of this fictitious species, this illegality of history, this work of convenience, was Wheeling in 1860, the state's largest city west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the fourth largest in Virginia and the 63rd most populous city in the United States.
Here, in 1861-63, western Virginians stood strong against dismemberment of the Union; pushed a series of actions that reorganized Virginia's government; crafted a new constitution; and created a new state. The delegates to the Wheeling Conventions succeeded in creating the 35th star in the American flag, and most citizens then and now believe the major reasons for Virginia's division were unresolved sectional differences - notably slavery, education, internal improvements and equitable representation in the Virginia General Assembly.
But sectional differences existed in other states, and these did not lead to dismemberment. Moreover, the actions taken at these conventions did not represent the will of the majority of the state's residents.
Beginning with South Carolina, Deep South states began to secede a month after President Lincoln's election in November 1860. By the time Virginia held its Secession Convention in February 1861, eight states had already joined the Confederate States of America. The delegates did not take a vote until April 4, when they voted 85-45 against secession. Eight days later, Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter; Lincoln's call for troops to suppress this rebellion emboldened Virginia secessionists who pushed through the Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55 on April 17, a stark reversal of the earlier vote. This ordinance required voter ratification at the spring election on May 23.
The vast majority of the 55 no votes came from counties in modern-day West Virginia, especially from the counties bordering the Ohio River and in close proximity to Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, delegates from Wetzel, Ritchie, Pleasants and Jackson counties voted to secede, whereas a few representatives from pro-slavery areas like Berkeley, Jefferson, Hampshire and Kanawha counties voted no.
When those who opposed secession returned home, to counties like Preston or Harrison or Marion or Ohio, they encountered pro-Union sentiments and large public gatherings. At what some call the Clarksburg Convention on April 22, John Carlile of Harrison County called for a Unionist convention to gather in Wheeling on May 13.
This was the First Wheeling Convention: for three days, 425 delegates from 25 counties considered what kinds of actions to take against the growing secessionist sentiment in the eastern environs of the Old Dominion.
The largest delegations hailed from Wood and Marshall counties (70 and 69, respectively), and the four Panhandle counties sent 155 men to Wheeling (37 percent of the total). The southern and southeastern parts of present-day West Virginia had no representation.
Historians agree that the First Wheeling Convention "cannot be regarded as fully representative" of a state which in 1861 consisted of 150 counties and a future state that contained 50 counties upon its entrance into the federal year.
On May 14, Delegate Carlile, considered more radical than most of his colleagues, addressed the Secession Ordinance:
"Let us repudiate these monstrous usurpations; let us show our loyalty to Virginia and the Union; and let us maintain ourselves in the Union at every hazard." His solution: creation of New Virginia.
Other delegates, notably J.J. Jackson of Wood County, Waitman Willey of Monongalia and Francis H. Pierpont of Marion, advised against any "premature" and "unwise" action until Virginian voters made their collective decision at the May 23 election. The convention postponed action on Carlile's motion but established a committee to draft an anti-secessionist response and to urge voters to cast ballots against secession on May 23.
With "three hearty cheers for the Union" the Convention adjourned, sine die, but in a "perfect blaze of enthusiasm." Those cheers soon turned to sighs: voters in northwestern counties heeded the pleas expressed in "To the People of NorthWestern Virginia," but the total vote, at least according to Richmond officials, was 125,950 to 20,373 in favor of Virginia's secession. Westerners cried foul: returns from 37 counties in the west were never included in the final tally.
The Wellsburg Herald detailed the vote and showed the gulf which separated the Panhandle counties from the Tidewater:
First Convention members pledged to return to Wheeling if state voters approved the Secession Ordinance, and the Second Wheeling Convention convened on June 11. Like its predecessor, the Second Convention was unrepresentative of the state's counties: only 30 counties sent delegates, a figure that represented only one-fifth of the state.
Washington Hall, at the corner of Market and Monroe (now 12th) streets, held the first session, where Arthur I. Boreman of Wood County accepted the presidency of the convention with these words:
"In this convention we have no ordinary political gathering. We have no ordinary task before us. We come here to carry out and execute, and it may be, to institute a government for ourselves. We are determined to live under a State Government in the United States of America and under the Constitution ... [and] we have the stout hearts and the men who are determined in this purpose."
Two days later, on June 13, the Convention moved to the third-floor courtroom of the Custom House, where John Carlile presented "A Declaration of the People of Virginia." This document called for "the reorganization of the government of the Commonwealth" and labeled "all acts ... tending to separate this Commonwealth from the United States, or to levy and carry on war against them ... without authority and void; and the offices ... vacated."
A day later, Carlile moved "an Ordinance for the Reorganization of State Government." To be sure, this action was a retreat from Carlile's proposal to create New Virginia, made during the First Convention, but its intent was to achieve the same end: a new state. Moreover, this action was necessary to comply with Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution: "no new state shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state ... without the consent of the legislatures concerned as well as of the Congress." Most Virginians in 1861 did not want a new state to be carved from the Old Dominion, but the Second Convention's members did not represent their views. Rather, they advanced their own agenda, because they believed that separation was inevitable.
The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer supported these actions: "No man who recognizes the supremacy of the federal Constitution can question the political or moral right of the convention ... [to] establish a new state government."
But thousands of western Virginians did question the "right" of the Second Convention: they joined the Confederate armies; they refused to send delegations to Wheeling; and they would later refuse to vote for ratification of the ordinance to reorganize Virginia and then to create a new state. Those who failed to oppose the doings at the Second Convention were dealt a fait accompli. The North West Commercial Advertiser said it best: "Western Virginia, with its progressive and tolerant ideas, is henceforth to be the state!"
Again, without any voter participation, the Second Convention installed state officers: Francis H. Pierpont, governor; Daniel Polsley, lieutenant governor; and James Wheat, attorney general. Gov. Pierpont acknowledged the extraordinary nature of reorganization. "We are," he averred, "but recurring to the great fundamental principle of our fathers that to the loyal people of a state belong the law-making power of the State."
During July, the Assembly of Reorganized Virginia convened, and its first important action was to select new senators: Carlile and Willey were sent to Washington and were seated, but only after some debate and modest opposition. Secondly, the Assembly considered the question of creating a new state, and after some discussion in which members could not agree to the status of slavery in any future state, the matter was referred back to the Convention.
The Adjourned Session of the Second Wheeling Convention began the dismemberment of the Old Dominion. On Aug. 20, delegates voted 48 to 27 to create a new state; the bill carried the title "An Ordinance to Provide for the Formation of a New State out of a Portion of the Territory of this State." This new state, if approved by voters in a referendum on Oct. 24, would be called Kanawha. Voters at that election agreed to the new state and elected delegates to the Constitution Convention; its first meeting took place in the Wheeling Custom House on Nov. 26. As with the First and Second Wheeling Conventions, selection of delegates was again problematic: several counties had no representatives; eight counties sent men whose elections were the result of military interference or work of the Methodist Episcopal Church; and in the case of Pocahontas County, the delegate was selected by "refugees" in Upshur County.
Moreover, the number of voters who participated in that fateful October election was pitifully small: only 19,189 citizens cast ballots. Yet, the total population of those counties exceeded 376,000.
Constitutional Convention attendees first decided to change the state's name. Because the state contained a county and a river both named Kanawha, other names were proposed: Allegheny, Western Virginia, Augusta and West Virginia. The latter garnered 30 votes; the total for the four other choices was only 14. Surprising, Northern Panhandle members were not strong in support of a new name: three from Ohio County voted for Kanawha; the Hancock County man voted for Allegheny; but the delegates from Brooke and Marshall voted for West Virginia.
In deciding the proper borders of their new state, delegates made sure all of the counties over which passed the B&O Railroad were included. Much debate centered on the issue of slavery. Surprisingly, many of these new West Virginians wanted to retain the "peculiar institution," but abolitionists among them, notably Gordon Battelle of Ohio County, pushed for gradual emancipation. In the end, the constitution contained no provision for abolition, allowing slavery to continue with this caveat: "No slave shall be brought, or free person of color be permitted into this state for permanent residence."
The constitution was passed with no dissenting votes cast, and the ratification was set for April 3, 1862.
Like previous votes, this one too was overwhelmingly in support of a new constitution: 18,862 to 514 to ratify, and like previous election days, votes were not cast "in whole counties in the central, southern and eastern parts of the proposed state." Nevertheless, the Reorganized Assembly met in May to continue its work for the citizens: on May 13, the Assembly approved the creation of the new state. Gov. Pierpont chastised those who questioned or opposed the Assembly's direction as not understanding "the history, geography and social relation of our State." He continued, "If we could only get rid of the vast herd of the leaders of the State and get their lands into the hands of honest, working men, I predict for the State a prosperity unexampled in its history."
Sen. Willey introduced the statehood enabling act in the United States Senate on May 29, and debate continued into the summer: the question of slavery divided the Senate, but Willey's Amendment that called for gradual emancipation allowed the bill to be brought to the floor. The Senate passed the bill by a margin of 23 to 17, but eight senators did not vote, meaning, of course, that a minority of the Senate approved the admission of West Virginia. One of those 17 no votes came from Sen. John Carlile, the man who called for a "New Virginia" at the First Wheeling Convention in May 1861. He was the leader the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer once considered the best choice to fashion a new state out of the Old Dominion.
Why he reneged is still a mystery to most historians, but the day was saved by Sen. Willey, whom the Intelligencer opposed for election to the United States Senate, editorializing that he was "not, never was, nor never will be a leader," because "he [had] not the back bone for times like these."
Willey's Republican colleagues supported the work of the Wheeling Conventions reluctantly. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania stated, "I will not stultify myself by supposing that we have any warrant in the Constitution for this processing ... [for we admit] under an absolute power which the laws of war give us." James G. Blaine of Maine, a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College only 30 miles east of Wheeling and a future Republican presidential standard bearer (1884), laid it on the line: "essentially the government of West Virginia was giving permission to the formation of a new state of West Virginia."
The House of Representatives delayed their vote until Dec. 10, when, after two days of spirited debate, the measure was approved by a vote of 96 to 55.
When the bill reached the White House, President Lincoln sought guidance from his cabinet. Attorney General Edward W. Bates proved the most ardent opponent. Formerly he described the actions of the Reorganized Government to dismember Virginia as "an original independent act of Revolution," and he called the enabling act for West Virginia "by its own intrinsic demerits, highly inexpedient [and] unconstitutional."
Lincoln ignored his attorney general's advice and signed the bill on Dec. 31, 1862, calling it "an expedient act." He added: "it is our secession ... secession in favor of the Constitution." Lincoln's signature was not the final chapter of this statehood saga: admission would come only if West Virginians ratified a constitution which included the Willey Amendment.
The Constitution Convention met in a recalled session on Feb. 12, 1863, and Sen. Willey was there to defend his amendment and discuss the impact of Freedmen on a postwar economy on the state and the matter of compensation for slave owners. On Feb. 17, the delegates accepted the Willey Amendment by unanimous vote, and, on the next day, without dissent, approved the amended constitution. Voters had their say on March 26, approving the changes by a margin of 27,749 to 572, despite Sen. Carlile's continued efforts to defeat it.
Certified election results allowed President Lincoln to issue the proclamation which admitted West Virginia as the nation's 35th state on June 20, 1863.
Detractors continued to express opposition. The Boston Commonwealth called the entire statehood proceedings bogus, and the New Jersey Legislature passed a resolution voicing its opposition to West Virginia's admission.
The Wheeling Conventions created a new state, one that could have only come to life in a time of war. Lincoln admitted as much when he wrote that admission of West Virginia is not "a precedent for times of peace."
During his Inaugural Address, Gov. Arthur I. Boreman reaffirmed this belief, describing the new state as "the child of rebellion."
If there had not been a Civil War, there never would have been a West Virginia; if the Wheeling Conventions had been delayed, even by a few months, there would be no West Virginia; and if all the counties currently in the Mountain State had had a voice in the proceedings and ratifications, there would not be a West Virginia.
Finally, in this writer's opinion, if those conventions had met somewhere else other than Wheeling, there would be no West Virginia. Wheeling is rightly called "Wheeling: The Birthplace of West Virginia," and considering this history of its creation, it should surprise no one that West Virginians call their state "Wild and Wonderful."
David Javersak is professor of history emeritus at West Liberty University.