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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

Lincoln and West Virginia Statehood*

By J. Duane Squires

Volume 24, Number 4 (July 1963)

West Virginia, the 35th state to be admitted to the Union, was one of two added to the nation in the administration of Abraham Lincoln. It is in some ways unique among the fifty states. West Virginia has been well described as the "most southern of the northern, the most northern of the southern, the most western of the eastern, and the most eastern of the western states."1 But it is unique in more than these four geographical ways. It is one of two states in our Union that were once a part of another state. And it is the only state in the nation whose admission directly involved the basic thinking of President Abraham Lincoln on the two vexing questions of the American constitutional system and the emancipation of the slaves. West Virginia will observe its 100th anniversary as a state on June 20, 1963. It is, therefore, fitting and proper at this time that we consider some of the aspects of West Virginia's admission to the Union a century ago, particularly the way in which our sixteenth President was involved.

As many historians have pointed out, the movement for statehood for West Virginia long preceded the outbreak of the Civil War. Geographic factors, differences in ethnic backgrounds, conflicting views on taxation, representation, and internal improvements had long been sources of friction between the eastern and western portions of the Old Dominion. In 1860 the forty-eight western counties of Virginia comprised one-third of the population, one-fourth of the area of that slate, and almost all its mineral resources. The population of those counties in 1860 was 380,000. These counties strongly opposed secession when, by a vote of 88-55, the Virginia State Convention passed this ordinance on April 17, 1861. Of the 46 members of that convention who represented what is now West Virginia, 9 voted for the ordinance of secession, 7 were absent, 1 was excused, and 29 were against.

The outraged citizens of the western counties of the state thereupon held two conventions in Wheeling, the first on May 13, and the second on June 11. At this second Wheeling Convention, the ordinance of secession was specifically repudiated, and all the existing offices of the state government functioning at .Richmond were declared vacated. A so-called "Restored Government" of Virginia on the basis of loyalty to the United States was established. Francis H. Pierpont was named Governor, while W. T. Willey and John S. Carlile were elected United States Senators. Henceforth until the end of the war, there were two governments for the State of Virginia, that in Richmond which was, of course, loyal to the Confederacy, and that in Wheeling - later in Alexandria - , headed by Pierpont, which was loyal to the Union.

But a dual government for Virginia was by no means the end of the struggle. A general referendum of the voters in the western counties, held on October 24, 1861, approved all that had been done at Wheeling thus far. It also indicated that the. popular desire was ultimately to establish an entirely new state. A third convention was then convened in Wheeling between November, 1861 and February, 1862. At this convention a new constitution was written and the name, "West Virginia," was officially adopted. In April, 1862, another referendum approved these actions by a vote of 18,862 to 514. On May 13, 1862, Governor Pierpont of the "Restored Government" of Virginia called his General Assembly into session, and this body promptly gave assent to the partition of the state and the formation of West Virginia.2 Following this action the center of interest shifts to Washington, D. C.

One of the earliest indications of President Lincoln's concern for the West Virginia situation is that contained in his Annual Message to Congress on December 3, 1861, when he wrote: "... winter closes in on the Union people of Western Virginia, leaving them masters of their own country."3 Three months later, on March 20, 1862, the President wrote to Governor Pierpont. Pierpont, whose name, by the way, Lincoln always spelled "Peirpoint," was urging the issuance of a probably rash and premature statement on West Virginia. Lincoln said: "Yours of the 14th received. Make haste slowly. Things are improving by time. Draw up your proclamation carefully, and, if you please, let me see it before issuing."4

It is perfectly clear that Lincoln favored the cause which West Virginia represented, but he was troubled with two basic questions: (1) what was the constitutionality of the creation of a new state from the corporate body of another state, even when Virginia was in rebellion? and (2} what would be the attitude of the new state, if Congress accepted it, to the fact of slavery within its midst? It is precisely these two questions which were at the very basis of Lincoln's thinking with regard to the whole Civil War itself. Without a satisfactory resolution of them the admission of West Virginia would be doubtful, if not impossible. Therefore, it is with these two questions that I wish to deal in the remainder of this paper.

We may consider, first, the constitutionality of the creation of a new state from the corporate body of another state. The Constitution of the United States contains this injunction: ". .. but no new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the juncture of two or more States or parts of States, without the consent of the legislatures of the States concerned as well as Congress."5 The key phrase was obviously, ". . . without the consent of the legislatures of the States concerned." Congress approved rather easily the idea of accepting West Virginia as a new state. Late in 1862, after a favorable vote of 23-15 in the Senate, and a similar vote by a margin of 95-66 in the House, the bill was sent to Lincoln's desk. It may be noted that by this time the proposal had become a party measure. In the Senate only one Democratic member. Rice of Minnesota, voted for the bill; in the House not a single Democrat was recorded in favor of it.6

On December 23, 1862, President Lincoln addressed to his Cabinet members the following terse letter.7

Gentlemen of the Cabinet A bill for an act entitled 'An Act for the admission of the State of West-Virginia into the Union, and for other purposes,' has passed the House of Representatives, and the Senate, and has been duly presented to me for my action.

I respectfully ask of each [of] you, an opinion in writing, on the following questions, towit:

1st. Is the said Act constitutional?

2d. Is the said Act expedient?

Your Obt. Servt.

To this request Secretaries Seward, Chase and Stanton replied affirmatively on both queries. Welles, Blair, and Bates responded negatively to both. Thus the closest advisers to the President were evenly divided. Meantime, Governor Pierpont telegraphed Lincoln on the 18th that a presidential veto would ". . . be death to our cause"; again, two days later, Pierpont telegraphed that ". . . great feeling exists . . . in reference to your delay in signing the bill for the new state."8 Another ten days passed. Then, on the last day of 1862, Lincoln signed the bill for West Virginia statehood. That he bad reflected long and hard on the constitutional question is indicated by portions of a memorandum issued at the time of his signing the bill:9

The consent of the Legislature of Virginia is constitutionally necessary to the bill for the admission of West-Virginia becoming a law. A body claiming to be such Legislature has given its consent. . . . I do not think the plural form of the words 'Legislatures' and 'States' in the phrase of the constitution 'without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned &c' has any reference to the new State concerned. That plural form sprang from the contemplation of two or more old States contributing to form a new one. The idea that the new state was in danger of being admitted without its own consent, was not provided against, because it was not thought of, as I conceive. It is said, the devil takes care of his own. Much more should a good spirit - the spirit of the Constitution and the Union - take care of its own. I think it can not do less, and live.

But is the admission into the Union, of West-Virginia, expedient. This, in my general view, is more a question for Congress, than for the Executive. Still I do not evade it. More than on anything else, it depends on whether the admission or rejection of the new state would under all the circumstances tend the more strongly to the restoration of the national authority throughout the Union. That which helps most in this direction is the most expedient at this time. Doubtless those in remaining Virginia would return to the Union, so to speak, less reluctantly without the division of the old state than with it; but I think we could not save as much in this quarter by rejecting the new state, as we should lose by it in West-Virginia. We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West-Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in congress and in the field. Her brave and good men regard her admission into the Union as a matter of life and death. They have been true to the Union under very severe trials. We have so acted as to justify their hopes; and we can not fully retain their confidence, and co-operation, if we seem to break faith with them. In fact, they could not do so much for us, if they would.

Again, the admission of the new state, turns that much slave soil to free; and thus, is a certain, and irrevocable encroachment upon the cause of the rebellion.

The division of a State is dreaded as a precedent. But a measure made expedient by a war, is no precedent for times of peace. It is said that the admission of West-Virginia, is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution.

I believe the admission of West-Virginia into the Union is expedient.

This is truly an interesting and persuasive piece of thinking by Lincoln. Immediately, however, its premises were challenged. For example, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in voting for the West Virginia statehood bill said bluntly that he was not under ". . . the delusion that we are admitting West Virginia in pursuance of any provision of the Constitution, . . . but under our absolute power which the laws of war gives us in the circumstances in which we are placed. I will not stultify myself by supposing that we have any warrant in the constitution for this proceeding.10 Nevertheless, Lincoln thought there was such warrant and he made a good case for it. His

cool and balanced thinking on this constitutional matter is strongly reminiscent of his mature reflections on the legal and moral aspects of the so-called "right of revolution." Lincoln's view of this was just last year so ably demonstrated by Professor Pressly that I need not review it today.11 And again, as so often in his thinking, on the constitutional aspects of West Virginia statehood, Lincoln uncovered new dimensions in fields of thought where others could see only rigidity.

The second of the basic problems involved in the admission of West Virginia was its attitude toward the institution of slavery then existing in some parts of the proposed new state. As all here today know, Lincoln had long meditated on the ultimate solution of the negro problem. Benjamin Quarles in his latest book has clearly indicated the scope and complexity of Lincoln's thought in this matter.12 Colonization plans had been in his mind. Emancipation followed by compensation for the former owners was a frequently considered solution. Emancipation without compensation was still a third possibility. Action by the President alone was pondered; action by constitutional amendment was carefully weighted. The question of arming the negroes to use in the military service of the United States was a related issue.13

It is indicative of the slowly changing thinking of the North on these vital issues that on July 30, 1862, a letter from the Governor and Council of New Hampshire was sent to the President. It read in part:14

We beg leave to say that our reading, intelligent, patriotic young men are inquiring into the propriety of wasting their strength and energy in daily and nightly watching of rebel states and other property, or building corduroy roads and bridges in Chickahominy Swamps - digging trenches, piling fortifications and the like, while strong and willing hands await only to be invited to do this laborious service, that they may show their appreciation of the glorious boon of freedom.

This letter may have strengthened Lincoln's convictions on several matters.

We know, for example, that as early as his Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, Lincoln had proposed a system of gradual emancipation of the negro people in our nation.15 We know that on Sunday, July 13, 1862, Lincoln had broached to Secretaries Welles and Seward the possibility of presidential emancipation as a war measure.16

We know that on September 22, 1862, following the battle of Antietam the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was actually issued. Both Secretary of the Treasury Chase and Secretary of the Navy Welles have given us lucid descriptions of the meeting of the Cabinet to which Lincoln read this preliminary proclamation.17 All these significant developments were occurring at the very time that the question of West Virginia statehood was before the Congress and the White House. You will recall that the West Virginia statehood law was signed on December 31, 1862, and that the Emanicpation [sic] Proclamation was issued the very next day.

In the fifth paragraph of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was careful to use these words in exempting a portion of Virginia from its provisions: "(except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia. . . .)" This exemption was in accord with Lincoln's philosophy of applying the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation only to the areas then in rebellion against the United States. When the proposed constitution of West Virginia had been before Congress, that body, as we have seen, had voted approval of it. But there was a condition exacted for this approval. That was a change of Section Seven of Article Eleven, dealing with the negroes in the new state. Whereas, the first draft had been vague in the matter, the revised article required by Congress and the President insisted on a system of gradual emancipation in West Virginia to begin on July 4, 1863. The phrasing of this revised article had been suggested by Senator Willey, and is known to history by his name.18

Lincoln's approval of the West Virginia statehood bill on December 31, 1862, was thus conditioned upon the acceptance by the people of that state of the Willey Amendment to their own constitution. This provision, let me repeat, specifically provided for gradual emancipation of the negroes of the state. On February 17-18, 1863, a recalled session of the West Virginia Constitutional Convention unanimously approved the Willey phraseology. On March 26, 1863, the constitution with the Willey Amendment was submitted to the people of West Virginia for ratification. By the overwhelming vote of 27,749 to 572, the electorate approved the revised document.19 A few weeks later, therefore, on April 20, 1863, President Lincoln issued the following proclamation:20

Whereas, by the Act of Congress approved the 31st. day of December, last, the State of West Virginia was declared to be one of the United States of America, and was admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever, upon the condition that certain changes should be duly made in the proposed Constitution for that State;

And, whereas, proof of a compliance with that condition as required by the Second Section of the Act aforesaid, has been submitted to me;

Now, therefore, be it known, that I Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do, hereby, in pursuance of the Act of Congress aforesaid, declare and proclaim that the said act shall take effect and be in force, from and after sixty days from the date hereof.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Sixty days later, on June 20, 1863, in accordance with the terms of this proclamation. West Virginia entered the Union. As stated in the beginning of this paper, it was the 35th state of the nation, and the first one to enter during the administration of President Lincoln.

The West Virginia admission problem was complex and interesting in its day and is just as much so a century later. It illustrated very clearly Lincoln's mind at work in the basic questions of constitutional law and negro emancipation. Its lessons might well be heeded by statesmen of our generation. Lincoln's qualities of patience, sagacity, and knowing when to take action were never better illustrated. On the morrow of statehood Archibald Campbell, the noted editor of the Wheeling Intelligencer, wrote: "A grateful people will ever say 'God bless Abraham Lincoln.'"21 Ninety- five years later a West Virginia historian declared: "President Lincoln's part in the formation of West Virginia was such that, if there had been no Lincoln, there would be no state of West Virginia today."22 With these dicta all in this group, I think, may well agree.


1 W.P.A. West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State (New York, 1941), p. 8 See also James L. Hupp. The Movement for West Virginia Statehood, Charleston, 1963, passim. Dr. Hupp is the State Historian and Archivist of West Virginia, and kindly made available to the several photostats of relevant material.

2 Hupp, op. cit. The details of these complex maneuvers are given in an informative historical series in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Sunday edition, during February-April, 1963.

3 Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1953), V, p. 35. A quite contrary view of the actions of the West Virginians is quoted by Walter H. Taylor, Four Years with General Lee, new edition, edited by James I. Robertson Jr., (Bloomington, Indiana, 1962, p. 18: "Northwestern Virginia has brought grief and shame to the State and to the South by her woeful defection..."

4 Basler, V. p, 166. Basler gives at least twenty communications between President Lincoln and Governor Pierpont during 1862-1864, op. cit., V, VI, VII, passim. Pierpoint, whose statue now stands as one of his State's contributions to Statuary Hall in Washington, legally changed his name's spelling in 1881 to Pierpont. See also Charles H. Ambler, Francis H. Pierpont, Union War Governor of Virginia and Father of West Virginia (New York, 1937).

5 Article VI, Section 3, Clause 1.

6 Memorandum by Kyle McCormick, former Director of West Virginia Department of Archives and History, prepared in 1959, and furnished to me by the present Director, Dr. James L. Hupp.

7 Easier, op. cit., VI, p. 17.

8 Ibid., p. 17.

9 Basler, VI, pp. 26-28.

10 Quoted by McCormick, 1959 Memorandum, pp. 2-3.

11 Thomas J. Pressly, "Bullets and Ballots," American Historical Review, 67: 647-662, April, 1962. See also James G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln (New York, 1926). Note the case of Virginia v. West Virginia, 246 U.S., 565.

12 Benjamin Quarles, Lincoln and the Negro (New York, 1962). Another valuable and relevant study is that by John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation (New York, 1963).

13 See New York State and the Civil War, 2:1-23, January, 1963. This is the valuable monthly publication of the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission.

14 Quarles, op. cit., p. 154.

15 Basler, op. cit., II, pp. 255-256.

16 John T. Morse J. ed., Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson (Boston, 1911), I, pp. 70-71; F. B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1867), pp. 20-22.

17 David Donald, ed., Inside Lincoln's Cabinet: The Civil War Diaries of Salmon P. Chase (New York, 1954), pp. 149-152; Diary of Gideon Welles, I, pp. 142-145.

18 Basler, VI, p. 181. See also J. H. Franklin, op. cit., p. 92.

19 Hupp, The Movement for West Virginia Statehood, p. 4.

20 Basler, VI, p. 181.

21 McCormick, 1959 Memorandum, p. 3.

22 Ibid., p. 1. As I completed the draft of this manuscript, I learned of an article by Boyd B. Stutler, "Mr. Lincoln and the Formation of West Virginia," Lincoln Herald, Vol. 60, Spring, 1958. But I have not had an opportunity to read it.

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