Lincoln and the Political Question: The Creation of the State of West Virginia

By Riccards, Michael P. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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Lincoln and the Political Question: The Creation of the State of West Virginia


Riccards, Michael P., Presidential Studies Quarterly


West Virginia is a child of the Civil War--a state made possible by the extraordinary chaos and opportunities that such upheavals bring. For the war generation and for those interested ever since, that episode created confusing constitutional debates about the nature of secession, the obligations of the national administration to guarantee to each state a republican form of government, and the right of free peoples to break off from a rebellious commonwealth and assert their fundamental allegiance to the Union. The handling of the West Virginia statehood movement also offers some insight into the continuing hold of constitutional forms on Northern politicians and opinion leaders, and the powerful determination of Abraham Lincoln to see the conflict and its controversies through one lens only--the necessity to win the war to save the Union.

The Secessionist Impulse

Sectionalism has always been a strong sentiment in the United States, and in the nineteenth century, sectionalism was evident not Just in the obvious North-South division, but also in the more pervasive and persistent differences between frontier and coastal areas, agricultural, mercantile and later industrial interests, religious communities, and ethnic enclaves. In fact, it has been argued by one perceptive commentator that it is group differences, more than ideas or ideology, that have historically driven American politics. More likely, those divisions have overlapped or accentuated differences, making nationalism or state cohesion difficult in this period.(1)

Such was the case with the major split between western and eastern Virginia. Long before the Secession Convention in 1861, there was an essential cleavage between the two areas which resulted from apparent geographical features, economic interests and ties, and profound cultural differences. The Blue Ridge, and later the Allegheny Mountains, served as the dividing line and a barrier between the two sections, an obstacle that limited contacts during a period when transportation and communications were primitive. The rivers of the Trans Allegheny flowed not to the east, but westward into the Ohio, and then into the Mississippi Rivers. Slavery and the agricultural system it served were especially strong in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. There were, however, some slave holdings in the area that was to become West Virginia--especially in the southern border counties of Greenbrier and Monroe, in Harrison County, and in the disputed counties of Berkeley and Jefferson in the Eastern Panhandle which border Virginia and Maryland. As one authority has concluded, "The present-day West Virginia in 1860 had a white population of nearly 380,000, a Negro-slave population of approximately 18,000, and almost 3,000 free persons of color." The census of 1860 placed the total number of slaves in Virginia at 490,865.(2)

The Alleghenies thus marked a discernible dividing line in the introduction and, more importantly, the exploitation of slaves. The white ethnic makeup was also different. In the East the stock remained predominantly English; in the Northwest the population was added to by significant numbers of Scotch-Irish, Germans, and Welsh in the eighteenth century, and around the 1840s by large numbers of Irish immigrants. Also, migrants from other American states were more likely to go to the Northwest area where there were economic opportunities than to the older, settled areas of the East.(3)

Central to the West Virginia character and grievances was the presence of a very strong cohort of ministers, circuit-riding missionaries, and laymen of the Methodist-Episcopal Church which became a vanguard for both statehood and emancipation.(4) Overall, the Western segments stressed internal improvements, available local banks, and political reforms that sought to enlarge the franchise for white men. Economically the West saw the beginnings of a more diversified economy than prevailed in the Piedmont and Tidewater areas.

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