W.Va.’s statehood focus of lecture series

WEIRTON – The birth of West Virginia as a state was surrounded by complications and controversy, according to historian and educator David Javersak.

Javersak, dean emeritus of the School of Liberal Arts at West Liberty University, presented his thoughts on the Mountain State’s creation Tuesday at the Weirton Museum and Cultural Center as part of a lecture series provided by the West Virginia Humanities Council Sesquicentennial Speakers Bureau.

“There was a lot amiss in how West Virginia was created,” Javersak said.

Following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, many southern states began to secede. Eventually, Virginia would join the Confederacy, but only after putting it before the commonwealth’s legislature twice. The second vote was 85 in favor of secession and 55 against.

“Almost all of those votes (against) came from counties either adjacent to the Ohio River or adjacent to Pennsylvania,” he said.

Soon after, a movement among many of those western to create their own state began, and the First Wheeling Convention was held. Javersak noted out of the 150 counties in Virginia at the time, only 25 were represented, with 155 of the 425 delegates coming from the Northern Panhandle.

“This is going to be led by the people from the north,” he said.

Much of the effort toward the creation of what would become West Virginia took place during the Second Wheeling Convention, during which a declaration was drafted to reorganize the Virginia government, nullifying any decisions made by the legislature in Richmond and creating a governing body which was still loyal to the Union.

“This is where the species of legal fiction will be created,” Javersak explained. “There was the U.S.A. Virginia and there was the C.S.A. Virginia.”

Javersak noted, however, there was never a vote by the people to create the “Reorganized government” or elect any of its leaders.

Originally, the reorganized government’s legislature decided to call the new state Kanawha, which was approved by a vote of the people. However, when the Constitutional Convention was started, also in Wheeling, delegates began arguing for a different name, with suggestions for Kanawha joined by Western Virginia, Allegheny and Augusta among others, before finally settling on West Virginia.

West Virginia’s Constitution and application for statehood went before the U.S. Congress for approval, actually receiving a minority of the votes from the 48 seated members of the Senate – with 25 senators either voting no or not casting a vote – and a 96-65 approval from the House of Representatives. This was all contingent on the state including a gradual emancipation of slavery.

When the bill went before Lincoln, a poll of his cabinet ended in a 3-3 tie, with Lincoln then deciding to admit the state into the Union despite being told by his attorney general it was unconstitutional.

Javersak concluded if it had not been for the Civil War and the timing and location of the conventions, when few thought it would be possible, West Virginia would not have become a state.

“Wheeling was the perfect little place for this,” he said. “These guys were able to push it through without anyone noticing.”

(Howell can be contacted at chowell@weirtondailytimes.com, and followed via Twitter @CHowellWDT)