By John Frye, author of The Secessionist.
The American Civil War produced many stories, most of them of battles, heroism, and the overcoming of great odds. It also produced its share of offbeat schemes and political maneuvers. Perhaps one of the strangest of these concerns the founding of West Virginia.
April 16 marks the sesquicentennial of President Lincoln's proclamation admitting West Virginia to the Union as the 35th state. That proclamation marked the successful conclusion of an unusual, if not bizarre maneuver by the western Virginians to separate themselves from Virginia.
Virginia had long been dominated by powerful plantation owners and factors from east of the Blue Ridge and south of the James River who skewed the political system against the western counties, some 300 miles from the coast and more than 200 miles from Richmond. In the 19th century, these counties provided an ever increasing share of Virginia's wealth and commercial interests in the region chaffed under the government in Richmond.
These interests longed to set up their own state within the Union, but they faced a seemingly overwhelming obstacle: the US Constitution requires that, if a new state is to be formed out of the territory of an existing state, the latter must consent. Then in 1861, when Virginia seceded from the Union it occurred to them, why not secede from Virginia?
Despite its bizarre nature, their scheme worked: they held several conventions that concluded that any governmental act to secede from the US was void, and consequently any government that took such an action was not legitimate. Once that was declared, the next step was to proclaim themselves the legitimate government of Virginia, adopt a constitution, elect a governor, legislature, and US senators and congressmen, and, while they were at it, consent to the formation of West Virginia.
Needless to say, this scheme sparked a good deal of debate in Washington, but practical politics prevailed and West Virginia was admitted, enhancing President Lincoln's political position in a nation weary of a long and costly war.
The so-called legitimate government of Virginia took up residence in Alexandria just across the Potomac from Washington and, once Richmond fell to Union forces, sought to take control. But it received no support and simply faded into history, while the work of the convention that created it lives on as West Virginia, the Mountain State, 35th state of the Union.
John Frye is the author of The Secessionist, published by Endeavour Press.