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  • "Secession in Favor of the Constitution"How West Virginia Justified Separate Statehood during the Civil War
  • David R. Zimring

On the morning of June 20, 1863, two separate births occurred in the city of Wheeling, Virginia. Edward Davis, a blacksmith by trade, and his wife Mary celebrated the birth of their daughter Frances. Nothing seemed extraordinary about this event on the surface. The Ohio County records simply listed her as the eighty-ninth child born in Wheeling in 1863. Yet Frances Davis stood out from all the other Wheeling babies before because she was the first child of Wheeling not born in Virginia. Instead, she became the first person ever born in the city of Wheeling, West Virginia. For on that same day, another birth took place: the first day of the existence of the brand new state of West Virginia. For many, it was a day of triumph; for others, a day of defeat; for all, a day that began a new era few believed would ever happen.1

Western Virginians who wanted a new state faced nearly insurmountable obstacles before that day arrived. The Constitution specifically states in article four, section three, that, in order to form a new state out of an existing one, the nascent state needed the consent of both the existing state and the federal government.2 Supporters of the new state had to make a persuasive case if they hoped for even the slightest possibility of success. Obtaining approval from the Virginia legislature in Richmond seemed remote, and even some people in western Virginia itself did not want a new state. The biggest challenge by far, however, lay in securing the federal government's approval, for that body still had the power to end any hope of statehood no matter what happened in Virginia.

Yet such a scenario was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, the federal government appeared to have every reason not to accept West Virginia. Western Virginians faced a paradox of wanting to basically secede from Virginia at the same time that the North waged a war against the secession of the southern states. In addition, although most western Virginians either [End Page 23] hated slavery or were indifferent to it, the institution still existed in their territory. A similar struggle for statehood had occurred in Kansas several years before, and northern congressmen made it clear that they would never accept another slave state.3 Even if western Virginians convinced Congress to hear their case, the war might have ended before the new state took shape. Therefore, western Virginians who wanted a new state needed to act quickly and strategically. Above all, they needed to present the justification for their case without setting a precedent that would undo the federal government's war aims. West Virginia's acceptance as a state had to help the Union in some way.

In order to accomplish their goal, western Virginia's leaders worked to shape the statehood movement into an image that the federal government found palatable. Along with their allies in the federal government, they based their main justifications for creating West Virginia on the constitutionality and expediency of separate statehood. All supporters of the new state in and out of West Virginia prepared to show congressmen, senators, and President Abraham Lincoln that West Virginia should take its place among the states of the Union. As a result, the most crucial battle for statehood took place not in Virginia but in the halls of Congress and the White House.

Most of the literature written on the formation of West Virginia has not addressed this issue. Authors such as Charles Ambler and Virgil Lewis wrote authoritative histories on West Virginia's social, cultural, and political structures without going into much analysis of the statehood movement itself. Other writers look at the conventions and debates that took place in Virginia in the 1830s and 1850s, where the lines between east and west were drawn. According to John Stealey's essay on the historiography of West Virginia, historians of the statehood movement mainly fall into three categories: those who focus on constitutional approaches, which mainly deal with either justification or condemnation of statehood; those who...