I couldn’t help but overhear a group of teens at the public library, discussing some points of the American Civil War. Their conversation had taken a detour into Virginia and West Virginia. One boy wondered why there is a North Carolina and a South Carolina; also, why is there a North Dakota and a South Dakota? How come there is not a North Virginia and a South Virginia? Why is there a Virginia and a West Virginia?
These were questions I hadn’t pondered since early November of 2013, when I wrote about the Dakotas. https://bluejayblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/the-dakotas/ I already knew that the Carolinas were split from Virginia Province during the colonial period. The Carolinas were, in turn, divided into two provinces well ahead of the Revolutionary War. The Virginia split has a more violent history.
Students of United States History remember that Virginia was first a large English Colony, then it became one of the original 13 States of the Union, following US independence. The quick, answer to the question, “Why did Virginia become two States?” is often answered simply. The split happened because of differences of allegiance during the Civil War.
The roots of two Virginias actually go much further back than the War between the States. The eastern portion of Virginia Province was separated from the western portion by the Allegheny Mountains. The mountain range presented a nearly impassible barrier for trade and communication except for the most primitive dirt/mud roadway.
The economy of eastern Virginia was based on tobacco and cotton agriculture, highly dependent upon slavery. The western areas of Virginia depended upon a more conventional form of agriculture. There were far fewer slave owners in the west than in the east. As the two areas matured, they became even more dissimilar regarding social culture and institutions. Yet, people in the two regions sought cooperation to retain common ground.
Around 1830, differing political philosophies began to gain traction. Liberal minded settlers in the western counties began pushing for universal male suffrage, internal infrastructure improvements and a make-over of the structure of their government. The political changes included the popular election of the governor, judicial members, the abolition of the governor’s council, and elimination of tax favoritism that encouraged slave ownership.
During the Virginia State Constitutional Convention of 1830, the pattern of sectional disagreement continued to manifest itself. The western liberal-minded west became seriously in disagreement with the conservative, slaveholding easterners. By the time of Confederate secession of Virginia from the United States, Northwestern Virginia had very little in common with the rest of Virginia. In fact, the two areas had become diametrically opposed to each other.
Internal secession became the goal of a faction of western Virginians by 1830. Western residents believed they were vastly underrepresented in the legislature in Richmond. Furthermore, westerners felt overtaxed and shortchanged in state spending. This was exasperated by the tax loopholes provided to eastern slave owners.
Meanwhile, as the US Federal government began to anticipate an outbreak of a war between the States, the US Coast Survey obtained a preview of the 1860 Census numbers. The first map that displayed the political divide later appeared in June of 1861. A few months later, a version of the map even displayed a proposed new State, named Kanawha.
Right after the Virginia government in Richmond voted to secede from the United States, the leaders in 27 western counties organized to remain within the Union and secede from the Confederacy. 25 of the western counties convened a convention in Wheeling, Virginia on May 13, 1861. Discussion of a split from Virginia was done, but a decision was tabled until the next meeting in Wheeling in June. By the end of the second session, the majority voted in favor of separation from Virginia.
The convention reassembled on August 20th. The members decided to call for a popular vote by the citizens whether or not to form a new state and to hold a constitutional convention. The election of October 24th decided the question in favor of a new state. There has been a question of the validity of the election because the Union Army, at the time, occupied the western counties and had posted troops at several polls to prevent Confederate sympathizers from organizing and voting.
The state constitutional convention started in late November of 1861 and wrapped up in February 1862. The new constitution was ratified on April 11, 1862. The reorganized state government’s legislature approved formation of the new state of West Virginia on May 13th. Application for Admission to the Union was presented to Congress on December 31st. President Abraham Lincoln approved Congress’s statehood enabling act on condition that the abolition of slavery appear in the state’s constitution.
The revised constitution was adopted March 26th, 1863. On April 30th, the President issued his proclamation of statehood to admit West Virginia to the Union 60-days later on June 20th, as the 35th State.
Strong legal opposition to the new state of West Virginia arose after the conclusion of the Civil War. In 1866, the Virginia General Assembly repealed the act of secession, then sued West Virginia. Virginia requested that the Supreme Court declare the admission of West Virginia as unconstitutional in Virginia v. West Virginia. The State of Virginia argued that the required elections were irregular and fraudulent.
The US House and Senate passed a joint resolution in favor of recognizing transfer of Virginia territories into West Virginia. On issues and technicalities, the US Supreme Court decided in favor of West Virginia in 1870.