Editor’s note: This article is one in a regular series about West Virginia’s march to statehood.
If you asked the average West Virginian why their state split off from the Commonwealth of Virginia on July 20, 1863, they would probably cite a disagreement between those who wanted to secede from the Union and those who opposed secession.
They would only be partially right. That disagreement actually was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The conflict between the sections of eastern Virginia and western Virginia dated back long before the start of the Civil War. The feud, in fact, has origins that date to the first state Constitution in 1776.
In 1830, the Kanawha Republican newspaper called for “secession” of western Virginia. The Wheeling Gazette in April of that same year called for delegates to meet “to treat with the eastern nabobs for a division of the state — peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.” Why in the world would there be such a push to separate what had become known as the western Virginia “mountaineers” from their brethren in eastern Virginia, known as “the planters”?
The answer is pretty obvious. The original state constitution and each constitution since that date required that in order to vote, a person must own at least 25 acres of tillable land or 50 acres of nontillable land. Eastern Virginians tended to be landowners. Western Virginians were less likely to own the required amount.
Eastern Virginia had a majority of members in the state legislature. And while that was tipping the balance away from anything western Virginians needed or wanted, that was only part of the problem. State officials, including the governor and judges were elected by the legislature and not by popular election.
The eastern Virginians owned slaves and traded mostly toward the Atlantic Ocean. Those in what is today West Virginia and across the Allegheny mountains from the rest of the state had many fewer slaves and traded mostly toward the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. There was virtually no transportation connection between the east and the west, making it difficult to trade with each other.
The situation in the state legislature was totally unfair from the get-go. Every other state in the country finally changed their state constitutions to allow a person to vote without regard to their land holdings. But Virginia held on until 1850.
Even Thomas Jefferson scolded the state for its unfair practices, saying in 1816 “let it be agreed that a government is republican in proportion as every member composing it has his equal voice in the direction of its concerns (not indeed in person, which would be impracticable beyond the limits of a city, or small township, but) by representatives chosen by himself, and responsible to him at short periods, and let us bring to the test of this canon every branch of our constitution. In the legislature, the House of Representatives is chosen by less than half the people, and not at all in proportion to those who do choose. The Senate is still more disproportionate.”
When Virginia finally let go of the land requirement and also allowed for popular vote of its office holders, something amazing happened. A western Virginian, Joseph Johnson of Bridgeport, was elected governor of Virginia. He was, as expected, the first governor elected by the people and the first governor ever from the western section. Since 1831, 31 consecutive governors of Virginia had come from the eastern side.
By the time of the Civil War, Virginia held its initial vote on the ordinance of secession on April 4, 1861. It was soundly defeated by a vote of 90 to 45. You read that right. Virginia had voted to stay a Union state.
However, when the war started in April 1861 and President Lincoln asked Virginia to provide troops to defend the Union, the state’s delegates voted again. Western Virginia Judge John J. Jackson predicted prior to the vote that “If the State of Virginia secedes from the Union, as sure as there is a God in Heaven, northwestern Virginia will secede from the State of Virginia!”
This time, on April 17, 1861, they voted in favor of secession by a vote of 85 to 55. Of those voting from our local area were Berkeley County delegates Allen C. Hammand and Edmund Pendleton and Jefferson County delegate Logan Osburn, Sr., all voted in opposition to secession.
When the state seceded, western Virginia members started organizing a movement that eventually led to West Virginia statehood. It took more than two years and was almost as difficult as the fight that western Virginians had participated in for the first eight-plus decades to gain representation.
— Bob O’Connor writes from Jefferson County