Admitted in June 20, 1863 by ratifying the U.S. Constitution, West Virginia became the thirty-fifth state. It is known as “The Mountain State” with the West Virginia State Constitution in current use adopted in 1872.
The story of how West Virginia became a state is an amazing story, full of constitutional intrigue and sleight-of-hand worthy of Houdini himself.
Our story begins (where else?) in 1776 Virginia. Virginia’s Constitution of 1776 was a rush-job. War with Britain was eminent and Virginia would need a new government to see it through this war; time was fleeting. Anticipating that the Continental Congress then meeting in Philadelphia would consider and likely approve a call for independence, forty-five delegates assembled at Williamsburg, Virginia on May 6. Seven weeks later, on June 29, Virginia had a new Constitution.
Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which preceded the Constitution itself, is one of the finest written during the founding period. Largely the work of George Mason of Fairfax, VA (with some important input from a twenty-five-year-old James Madison), it elucidates several enduring principles of constitutional liberty absent even from the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
The new Constitution was put into effect immediately upon its signing, without even so much as a nod to the people of the state. When this “non-ratification” was challenged in 1793, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that “This constitution is sanctioned by the consent and acquiescence of the people for seventeen years…” Case dismissed.
The new Constitution immediately attracted critics, among them Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson had wanted to remain in Williamsburg and work on the Virginia Constitution; instead he had been sent north to Philadelphia and on July 4, 1776, America benefitted from the decision to send Jefferson north. From Philadelphia, Jefferson had sent back to Williamsburg his ideas for the state constitution. Unfortunately, they arrived too late for consideration.
Among its many features, the 1776 Constitution limited the right to vote primarily to property owners and men of wealth. This, coupled with malapportionment of voting districts, concentrated power in the hands of the landowners and aristocracy of Southeastern Virginia. In the only book he ever wrote, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson listed several “capital defects” of the Virginia Constitution, including the unequal representation in the legislature.
Year after year, petitioners, largely from the western counties, called on the Virginia Assembly to initiate a constitutional convention to correct this and other deficiencies to no avail. The House of Delegates twice passed a bill calling for a convention only to have it fail in the more conservative Senate. Western counties in the state continued to experience growth and increasing irritation at their lack of representation in the Assembly.
Finally, from October 5, 1829 to January 15, 1830, a convention met to “fix” the defects in the Constitution. It has been termed the last “gathering of giants.” Present were two former U.S. Presidents (James Madison and James Monroe) and the sitting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall (the Court’s case load was apparently not as pressing as it is today). This august group of ninety-six men would eventually supply three presidents, seven U.S. Senators, fifteen U.S. Representatives, and four governors.
Despite the pleading of James Madison and others, the convention failed to fully rectify the Constitution’s malapportionment problem. They loosened the requirements for suffrage, but kept representation by county, which failed to solve the basic problem facing the western counties, and their residents would continue to feel under-represented and disenfranchised for the next thirty years. The 1829 constitution was put to a popular vote and passed, even while many residents in the west voted against it.
Over the next twenty years the western half of Virginia experienced a flood of new settlers. Attracted by cheap plentiful land, these hardy souls set up much smaller farms than those in the east—farms manageable without resorting to slave labor. Calls for emancipation of the slaves and more equitable representation in Virginia’s government continued to be heard from the west.
Another constitutional convention in 1850-1851 eliminated the property requirement for voting, established popular election for the Governor and all Virginia judges, and created the office of Lieutenant Governor, also elected. Delegates took note of the rising tension between the slave-owning east and the emancipation-interested western counties.
Rising tensions in the United States between the manufacturing North and the agrarian South, exacerbated by the issues of slavery, tariffs, nullification, and state’s rights, reached a breaking point on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina seceded from the Union. In response, the Virginia General Assembly called for a convention, to meet in Richmond on February 13, 1861, to consider whether Virginia should join South Carolina. By the end of January, six additional southern states had seceded.
On April 12, Fort Sumter was attacked and taken over by the South. Three days later President Lincoln issued a call for the states to provide 75,000 Union troops, including three regiments of 2,340 men from Virginia. Although a previous resolution to secede had been defeated in the convention on April 17, 1861, Lincoln’s call for troops became too much: the convention approved an “Ordinance of Secession,” by an 88-85 vote. All of the western and several of the northern counties objected to the Legislature’s decision to secede, but Virginia voters overall approved the ordinance by a wide margin and the convention formally ratified the Constitution of the Confederate States of America on June 19, 1861.
Virginia’s western counties conducted “anti-secession” conventions in Wheeling, Virginia on May 11, and June 11, 1861. The Second Wheeling Convention declared the offices of all government officials in Richmond who had voted for secession to be vacant and promptly filled them with their own people. Viewed from another perspective, the Restored Government seceded from the state of Virginia. The “Restored Government of Virginia,” with Francis H. Pierpont as their Governor, next appointed two Senators and two Representatives, who were immediately recognized by the U.S. Congress (Lincoln welcomed the votes).
Once that was complete, the “Restored Government of Virginia” moved itself to Alexandria, where it operated until 1865, while the “Secession Government of Virginia” continued to meet in Richmond.
At this point, there were two Virginia governments in existence: one meeting in Richmond and considering itself part of the Confederacy; and one meeting in Alexandria, considering itself part of the Union. Each claimed the entirety of the land mass of Virginia as its own. Was any of this legal? The plot thickens.
The “Restored Government,” acting in accordance with Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, passed a resolution allowing the counties of northwest Virginia to split off and form their own state called West Virginia. Before West Virginia was admitted to the Union as a distinct state (in 1863) there were actually three separate governments operating within the confines of the state of Virginia: one part of the confederacy, one part of the Union, and one hopeful of becoming a separate state. The “Restored Government” approved a new constitution in 1864. Since this constitution was enacted under wartime conditions and the “Restored Government” stood on rather shaky ground to begin with, the 1864 constitution is not recognized as part of the constitutional history of Virginia.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights contains a statement that “all [political] power is… derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.” When “the people” delegate their sovereign power to a government, is that a one-way trip, is the power forever surrendered? No, no, a thousand times no! Virginia’s Ratification Convention of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 made this crystal clear by writing:“WE the Delegates of the people of Virginia…, DO in the name and in behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.”
How much political power did the “Restored Government of Virginia” actually enjoy? That’s certainly debatable; same for the government of West Virginia, and the Secession government for that matter. They certainly possessed some legitimate political power resulting from the people each government represented.
But wait, there’s more!
There is also a provision in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 (Section 14) that reads: “…the people have a right to uniform government,… therefore,… no government separate from, or independent of the government of Virginia, ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof.” How was the “Restored Government” not in violation of the 1776 constitution? The “Restored Government” saw no problem, they considered the secessionist government officials to have vacated their offices, which the “restorers” gladly “filled.” Problem solved.
On December 5, 1865, however, the Virginia Assembly in Richmond passed legislation repealing all the acts of the “Restored Government” regarding secession of the 39 counties and the admission of Berkeley and Jefferson counties to the state of West Virginia.
In response, on March 10, 1866, Congress passed a resolution acknowledging the transfer of Berkeley and Jefferson counties from Virginia to West Virginia.
The Virginia Assembly in Richmond sued. With not a single Justice from any of the southern states on the bench, the odds were stacked against Virginia. In Virginia v. West Virginia (1871), the Court avoided the question of whether West Virginia’s existence as a state was constitutional and instead focused on the specific counties referred to in the trial. They quickly dispensed with a challenge by West Virginia that they lacked jurisdiction to hear the case and then sided with the “Restored Government of Virginia” that what had occurred was all right and proper, that Congress had properly approved West Virginia’s proposed Constitution, and that the polling of the citizens that had been conducted during this process was legitimate.
After the war concluded in favor of the Union, the “Restored Government of Virginia” moved its operations to Richmond and operated under the Constitution of 1864 until Virginia was placed under the military rule of Lieutenant General John M. Schofield. Schofield called for a new constitutional convention, which met in Richmond in December 1867. They enacted a constitution containing a provision that prevented Virginia from ever again leaving the Union.
On October 8, 1869, Virginia voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and by doing so began the process of re-admittance to the Union, which concluded on January 26, 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act culminating the process. (But wait, wasn’t the restored “Virginia” back in the Union as of April 1861?)
The present West Virginia Constitution, enacted in 1872, begins: “Since through Divine Providence we enjoy the blessings of civil, political and religious liberty, we, the people of West Virginia, in and through the provisions of this Constitution, reaffirm our faith in and constant reliance upon God and seek diligently to promote, preserve and perpetuate good government in the State of West Virginia for the common welfare, freedom and security of ourselves and our posterity.”
The Bill of Rights, which comprises Article 3, not surprisingly borrows heavily from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. It is not without its unique elements, however.
Section 11 states: “Political tests, requiring persons, as a prerequisite to the enjoyment of their civil and political rights, to purge themselves by their own oaths, of past alleged offences, are repugnant to the principles of free government, and are cruel and oppressive. No religious or political test oath shall be required as a prerequisite or qualification to vote, serve as a juror, sue, plead, appeal, or pursue any profession or employment. Nor shall any person be deprived by law, of any right, or privilege, because of any act done prior to the passage of such law.” The first clause is a reaction to the state government imposing loyalty oaths in the aftermath of the Civil War. The repugnancy of such oaths, in fact, provided much of the impetus for the 1872 Constitution.
Section 15a is also unique. It reads: “Public schools shall provide a designated brief time at the beginning of each school day for any student desiring to exercise their right to personal and private contemplation, meditation or prayer. No student of a public school may be denied the right to personal and private contemplation, meditation or prayer nor shall any student be required or encouraged to engage in any given contemplation, meditation or prayer as a part of the school curriculum.”
Section 22 makes it clear that “A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, and for lawful hunting and recreational use.” No confusing militia clause here.
Some other interesting provisions include a prohibition against duels, but only on the part of those who might later seek public office (Article 4 §10).
Since 1872, West Virginians have added more than fifty amendments to their Constitution and the rate of amendment gradually accelerated (there were only three amendments in the 19th century). There have been occasional calls for a new constitution. In 1964, the legislature passed a law that authorized the election of delegates to a constitutional convention. The movement then stalled after the state Supreme Court invalidated the law because it improperly apportioned delegate selection.
One is hard-pressed to find any of the fifty United States with a more convoluted tale of statehood. Welcome to “The Mountain State.”
Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America (May 2019).
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 Delegate to the Continental Congress Richard Henry Lee had in fact been provided a resolution for independence to introduce in the Congress. He did so on June 7, 1776.
 The Virginians did adopt much of the Declaration’s “grievances” section (from Jefferson’s initial draft) as the preamble to their new Constitution.
 “Virginia Convention of 1861.”
 Virginia v. West Virginia, 78 U.S. (11 Wall.) 39 (1871).
Editor’s Note: The featured image is the state flag of West Virginia, courtesy of Wikipedia.