Is West Virginia Even Legal?
Updated: Sep 7
By Jon Sanders, Contributor
There is no stranger political division in the United States in between Virginia and West Virginia.
Virginia played a vitally important role in the American colony’s formative years. During that time, there were of the first 5 US presidents being Virginians. With that importance, how was eastern Virginia dismissed and West Virginia created?
There remains a reasonable interpretation of the state of West Virginia being illegal. And that's just not the opinion of college football fans. The eastern part of Virginia played a vitally important role in the American colony’s formative years. During that time, there were of the first 5 US presidents being Virginians. With that importance, how was eastern Virginia dismissed and West Virginia created?
As most know, prior to the civil war there was only one "Virginia", but it was not an entirely unified state. Most of Virginia’s land was suitable for agriculture while the northwestern section was more mountainous and rugged. It's not uncommon for most territories to have geographical differences between their extremes, however in this instance the northwestern region was completely different from the rest of the state. The northwest's rugged countryside was virtually unfit for agriculture and, as a result, not a heavy user of slave labor. In many Virginian's eyes the city of Wheeling, the northwest's largest city, was far closer to Pittsburgh than Richmond - the capital of Virginia. Even the residents tended to retain mannerisms and community beliefs more in line with Pennsylvanians than Virginians. It's still a very real difference in modern times. That difference in culture was distinctly represented in the Virginia General Assembly. State delegates from the northwest were often passionate opponents to bills brought by the eastern representatives citing regional priorities and bias. The challenges and differences became more apparent during the times of identifying Civil War allegiances. It's strange how conflict can either bring people together or breaking them apart. And for Virginia, the American Civil War was the latter. When the Virginia General Assembly passed their bill to secede from the United States Union, it was greeted by the northwest holding The Wheeling Convention and seceding from Virginia. As ruled by the United States Supreme Court secession is illegal. Therefore every state that broke away from the union to join the Confederate States of America had committed a crime. This is where things got a little muddy and remarkably interesting.
The Constitution grants general state-creation powers to Congress in Article IV, Section 3, under the Admissions Clause, which reads: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
When Virginia seceded from the union the northwestern part wanted nothing to do with the partnership with the Confederate States of America. From their perspective, they had no reason to be drawn into the politics of states’ rights and slavery laws. They were flatly exhausted with Virginia's government abuses and the west had extraordinarily little need for slavery within its territories. As retaliation to Virginia’s withdrawal from the union the northwestern part of Virginia created a new government claiming to be the true government of Virginia with it's new capitol being Wheeling - since Virginia had illegally seceded from the union. President Lincoln and other federal government officials agreed the new state government was indeed the legitimate body representing Virginia. The newly represented state government sent three men to the house and two to the Senate. The new Virginian government used their new power as leverage to create a loophole around the constitution with hopes of independent statehood. If they were the true Virginia in the eyes of the federal government then they could technically carve a new state out of Virginia. To nobody's surprise there was little interest in associating with the affairs of eastern Virginia. As a result, they proposed a new state of 39 counties and named this new state Kanawha.
Sound familiar? Virginia seceded from the United States without US government permission and now West Virginia seceded from Virginia without Virginia's permission. But how did it happen? The decision to break away from Virginia was finally decided at the ballet box. Times change and stories can be tinted over time, but the stories about the voting process are strikingly reminiscent of North Korea. The results were 18,404 in favor of leaving Virginia and 781 to remain; It was a Brexit debate before it is time. May Virginians were against the elections taking place in union controlled areas with union soldiers placed outside voting stations. The union reasoning explained their presence as a deterrence for confederate supporters wanting to create any potential problems with the process. It was also intended to dissuade any of the CSA supporters to even vote. Many of the CSA supporters did not recognize the vote as legitimate, so they did not bother to cast a vote. Even the delegates organizing the secession meetings were mostly self-appointed. The excitement was measured with the lowest turnout percentage of any county falling to as low as 2%.
After the Civil War and West Virginia’s successful departure, Virginia decided to settle things the old fashioned American way by suing to reclaim their land. It was clear from the start Virginia had little hope in reclaiming the state by way of challenging their legitimacy. And as expected, their court case was unsuccessful. And yes, the lawsuits continued over the years. In 1871, Virginia claimed several of West Virginia's eastern counties belonged to Virginia. Again in 1911, Virginia sued claiming West Virginia’s pre-split debt to the state was never properly settled. It was like a modern day, ugly divorce separation. To this day, some Virginians do not believe West Virginia should not exist because it seceded from the illegal seceders. It's viewed as stealing from a thief since Virginia’s government officials illegally left the union.
Today West Virginia is just as much a state as the other 49. Reminiscing and hearing each of these stories about the state’s origins can still be enough to make any history buff jump for excitement. Truly a unique experience in the incredibly unique history of the United States.