You remained loyal to your country when others raised arms against her. You thrived in rugged mountains where others cannot dwell. You provided energy for industry and homes for decades – and paid a heavy price. You saved special places in your ancient mountains where people can find refuge in nature. You gave more than your fair share of sons and daughters to fight the nation’s fights.
The State of West Virginia is unique for many reasons. It remains one-of-a-kind as the only state admitted by a presidential proclamation.
Although the Civil War provided the conditions for the final division of Virginia, the divide between east and west had grown since the state’s creation. Virginia’s first constitution, ratified in 1776, granted the vote to whites owning 25 acres of improved land or 50 acres of unimproved land. The scheme favored wealthy landowners in lowland Virginia and discriminated against an emerging class of small landowners in the western highlands.
In 1816, Thomas Jefferson pleaded with his colleagues to allow all white males to vote. But Jefferson, who died in 1826, would never see the reform adopted.
A constitutional convention in 1829-1830 failed to meet western demands for white male suffrage and direct election of state and local officials. Statewide, a new constitution was approved by a margin of 26,055 to 15,566, although voters in present-day West Virginia rejected it, 8,365 to 1,383. The Kanawha Republican and other newspapers led calls for secession of the western counties – more than 30 years before the start of the Civil War.
The government in Richmond took some action to ease the sectional divide. For decades, citizens in the west had pleaded for construction of roads. In 1848, the state completed the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, which passed through northern Pocahontas County. A section of the old pike is still a public road – although poorly maintained – connecting Bartow with Route 250 in Highland County, Virginia.
Not until 1851 did Richmond grant the right to vote to all white males over 21. Voting reforms and other reforms eased tension between western and eastern Virginia. But the issue of slavery soon drove a wedge between states and through the middle of Virginia. The wound between states would heal, but the divide between eastern and western Virginia would be permanent.
A majority of citizens in western Virginia opposed the state’s ordinance of secession, which Virginia voters passed on May 23, 1861. The vote seemed to be a technicality, because Richmond had already aligned itself with the Confederacy and begun war preparations.
In response to Virginia’s secession, delegates from western counties met in Wheeling to choose a course of action. Arthur Boreman, of Wood County, said at the start of the convention:
“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 of the United States. It requires stout hearts to execute this purpose; it requires men of courage – of unfaltering determination; and I believe, in the gentlemen who compose this convention, we have the stout hearts and the men who are determined in this purpose.”
On June 19, 1861, delegates voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance reorganizing the government of Virginia. On October 24, voters from 39 counties overwhelmingly approved creation of a new state, to be named Kanawha. Delegates later changed the name to West Virginia.
In December 1862, two months after the Battle of Antietam, Congress presented a bill to President Abraham Lincoln for the creation of the State of West Virginia. After signing the bill, Lincoln wrote:
“We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in Congress and in the field. Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials. We have so acted as to justify their hopes; and we can not fully retain their confidence, and cooperation, if we seem to break faith with them.”
West Virginia delegates approved a new constitution in February 1863, providing for the gradual elimination of slavery. Voters ratified the revised constitution on March 26 by a vote of 28,321 to 572. Lincoln issued a proclamation on April 20, 1863, declaring that in sixty days, West Virginia would become a state in the Union. On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the thirty-fifth state.
Inaugural ceremonies were held in Wheeling, the capital of the new state. In his inaugural address, Governor Boreman referred to West Virginia as “the child of the rebellion,” and stated that, “Today, after many long and weary years of insult and injustice, culminating on the part of the east in an attempt to destroy the government, we have the proud satisfaction of proclaiming to those around us that we are a separate State in the Union.”
Happy 151st birthday, West Virginia.