ﾑThe Great Emancipatorﾒ gave West Virginia a fighting chance
As we celebrate Presidentsﾒ Day on February 20, we honor presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
When we think of Lincoln, several things come to mind ﾖﾠthe nickname ﾓThe Great Emancipator,ﾔ the Gettysburg Address ﾖ but many donﾒt realize the impact Lincoln had on West Virginiaﾒs statehood.
In 1861, as the Confederacy rallied against the Union, the state of Virginia found itself split over secession. The people of western Virginia did not want to secede from the Union and began the arduous task of becoming a separate state.
The people of western Virginia were separate in their beliefs from fellow Virginians.
ﾓBy every natural association, western Virginia was allied to Ohio and Pennsylvania, and therefore the northern sentiments and institutions,ﾔ wrote West Virginia historian Theodore F. Lang. ﾓWhen, therefore, the loyal people of western Virginia declined to yield to the demand of the secessionists of the state, it very naturally created a great deal of enthusiasm in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and did much to attract the sympathy and help of those states to the support of the brave loyalists of this section.ﾔ
At the Wheeling Convention in June 1961, citizens of western Virginia convened to set up an alternative government to the current secessionist Virginia governing in Richmond. The Unionists elected railroad attorney Francis H. Pierpont provisional governor, and Waitman T. Willey and John S. Carlile were elected state senators.
Until the end of the Civil War, Virginia operated under two governments ﾖ the Confederacy in Richmond and Unionists in Wheeling.
ﾓThe reorganized government served its purpose well by providing a state government around which loyal Virginians could rally,ﾔ historian Richard O. Curry wrote. ﾓIt marked the beginning of a policy that would be utilized by the Lincoln Administration in restoring other rebellious states to the Union, and it was to be the instrument through which separate statehood for West Virginia would be implemented.ﾔ
West Virginia garnered support from the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania for the separate Union government. Both Congress and Lincoln recognized the validity of the new government and its representatives.
The fight for official statehood began in October 1861. By April 1862, the Wheeling government approved a new constitution and in July, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to admit West Virginia as a separate state, with the provision that gradual emancipation would be approved as part of the constitution.
While the majority of western Virginia was slave-free, some Unionists were still on the fence about emancipation. The new provision was added to the West Virginia constitution.
The House of Representatives didnﾒt pass the statehood legislation until December 1862.
While it was obvious Lincoln favored the statehood of West Virginia, he faced two moral dilemmas: Was it constitutional to form a state from within a rebellious state and what would the stateﾒs position be on slavery? That is why he strongly urged the Wheeling government to add the provisional clause of gradual emancipation into the new stateﾒs constitution.
As the bill sat in Washington, D.C., awaiting votes, the Unionists of West Virginia were anxiously awaiting an outcome.
On December 18, 1862, Governor Pierpont wrote Lincoln concerning the bill.
ﾓApprehension felt here of veto of the new state bill. It would be disastrous to the Union cause in western Virginiaﾅ it will be death to our cause,ﾔ the letter read.
Later that month, Lincoln wrote to the members of his cabinet, asking for their guidance in the constitutionality of the statehood of West Virginia.
The cabinet was split, with three for the formation and three against. It seemed hopeless, but Lincoln finally came to a decision.
ﾓAlthough his cabinet officers were split on this matter, Lincoln convinced himself that this bold legislative departure was acceptable,ﾔ historian Allan G. Bogue wrote. ﾓCongressional action, he noted, showed that the measure was expedient. His own review convinced him that it was constitutional.ﾔ
On December 31, 1862, Lincoln signed the Legislation to admit West Virginia as a new state into the Union, just one day before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln wrote out his opinion on the constitutionality of West Virginiaﾒs admission.
ﾓDoubtless those in remaining Virginia would return to the Union, so to speak, less reluctantly without the division of the old state than with it, but I think we could not save as much in the quarter by rejecting the new state, as we should lose by it in West Virginia,ﾔ he wrote. ﾓ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.
ﾓThe division of a State is dreaded as precedent,ﾔ he continued. ﾓBut a measure made expedient by a war, is no precedent for times of peace. It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution. I believe the admission of West Virginia into in the Union is expedient.ﾔ
On March 26, 1863, West Virginia voted for the required constitution amendment abolishing slavery and on April 20, Lincoln issued the official document certifying that West Virginia met the requirements to be a state. In May, the state elected a new government and June 20, Governor Arthur I. Boreman took his seat as the first leader of the new state of West Virginia.