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In Secession, Speed Was of the Essence

June 19, 2013

WHEELING - Constitutionality and expediency were the two main arguments that statehood proponents won to gain recognition of West Virginia as the 35th state, a visiting scholar said in Wheeling Tuesday.

David Zimring, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, spoke on "Secession in Favor of the Constitution" at the Ohio County Public Library on Tuesday. The Lunch With Books program was presented in partnership with the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp.

In 1861-62, leaders in western Virginia had to prove that secession from Virginia to avoid secession from the Union was legal, Zimring said. In terms of expediency, he said, "West Virginia's leaders needed to convince the federal government that West Virginia statehood was a legal and necessary measure that helped the Union."

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At the first Wheeling convention in May 1861, he said, representatives were divided into two factions: men who called for immediate statehood and those who took a cautionary approach. John Carlile believed that ardent Unionism would pave the way for statehood, but more cautious delegates, specifically Waitman Willey, warned of the legality since less than one-third of the counties had sent representatives to the convention.

By the end of the first convention, Willey and his supporters won out; the convention adjourned to await the popular vote in Virginia on secession from the Union. In that vote, most of the opposition came from western Virginia, so the second Wheeling convention convened in June 1861. With more representation from counties, the convention had more credence on the constitutionality issue, he said.

The second Wheeling convention created the Restored Government of Virginia. Critics called it "a legal fiction," adhering to the letter of the law while violating its spirit. However, the Restored Government "scored a significant success" when it gained the approval of President Abraham Lincoln and Congress as the legitimate government, Zimring said.

On July 4, 1861, Lincoln spoke of the Restored Government as "those loyal citizens" and called for federal recognition and protection. Congress sealed the argument by voting to seat the Restored Government's delegation to the Senate and House of Representatives, the professor said.

Also in July 1861, the Restored Government's legislature agreed to formation of a new state and sent the measure to the voters. Voter turnout was quite small, but those casting ballots gave "overwhelming support for separate statehood," he said.

The next challenge, though, was the issue of slavery. The constitutional convention in Wheeling in November 1861 voted 24-23 to table an amendment calling for gradual emancipation of slaves. "That action would become another self-imposed obstacle against statehood," Zimring said.

When abolitionists in Congress opposed the Restored Government's stance, Willey, then a U.S. senator, wrote a new amendment on gradual emancipation, allaying the abolitionists' fears. The Senate then voted 23-17 in favor of statehood. The bill faced "much more vocal opposition" in the House of Representatives, but the House eventually passed the West Virginia bill by a vote of 96-55 on Dec. 10, 1862, Zimring said.

Lincoln took the matter to his six-member cabinet which split evenly on the issue of statehood. Lincoln "still dithered," but signed the statehood bill on Dec. 31, 1862, and "wrote an elaborate justification," the professor said. Lincoln argued that "West Virginia represented secession in favor of the Constitution."

The statehood proponents had honed in on the two factors most likely to influence the federal government.

"They held to that strategy and it worked," Zimring concluded. "Secession did not necessarily represent treason."

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