May 13th, 2013
On April 17, 1861, the Virginia Convention voted, 88 to 55, to secede from the Union. Almost two-thirds of those who voted against secession came from northwestern Virginia, where the economic climate and political interests were very different from eastern Virginia. The passage of the Virginia Secession Ordinance resulted in anti-secession conventions across northwestern Virginia. The largest of these, held in Clarksburg, resulted in a call for a convention to be held to address Virginia’s uncertain political future. The resulting meeting, held on May 13-15, 1861, would later be known as the First Wheeling Convention.
In the resolutions adopted at the First Wheeling Convention, the delegates declared the Virginia Ordinance of Secession to be “unconstitutional, null and void,” and rejected Virginia’s joining the Confederate States. The seventh resolution gives a taste of the deep divisions running between the eastern and western parts of the state:
“Resolved, That in view of the geographical, social, commercial and industrial interests of Northwestern Virginia, this Convention are constrained in giving expression to the opinion of their constituents to declare that the Virginia Convention in assuming to change the relation of the State of Virginia to the Federal Government, have not only acted unwisely and unconstitutionally, but have adopted a policy utterly ruinous to all the material interests of our section, severing all our social ties, and drying up all the channels of our trade and prosperity.”
Some of the delegates to the Convention wanted to create a state of New Virginia immediately, to encompass roughly the area of today’s West Virginia. Such a step was seen by the more conservative delegates as revolutionary, unconstitutional, and premature, since the Ordinance of Secession had yet to be ratified by popular vote. The Convention’s resolutions urge citizens of northwestern Virginia to reject secession at the polls:
“Resolved, That we earnestly urge and entreat the citizens of the State every where, but more especially in the Western section, to be prompt at the polls on the 23d instant [May 23, 1861]; and to impress upon every voter the duty of voting in condemnation of the ordinance of Secession, in the hope that we may not be involved in the ruin to be occasioned by its adoption, and with the view to demonstrate the position of the West on the question of secession.”
In case the Ordinance of Secession was ratified by the vote, the delegates laid the groundwork for what would be the Second Wheeling Convention, to be held June 11, 1861. The possibility of creating a new state at a later date is set forth in the ninth resolution:
“…we believe we may rightfully and successfully appeal to the proper authorities of Virginia, to permit us peacefully and lawfully to separate from the residue of the State, and form ourselves into a government to give effect to the wishes, views and interests of our constituents.”
The popular vote in May supported the ratification of the Ordinance of Secession, which paved the way for the Second Wheeling Convention to establish the Restored Government of Virginia. Comprised of northwestern Virginians, this government was loyal to the Union, and its creation and acceptance by the federal government was a step toward constitutionally allowing western Virginia to secede from Virginia and become its own state.
Interested in learning more about West Virginia’s path to statehood? Look for the West Virginia and Regional History Center’s upcoming exhibit, to premiere on the 150th anniversary of our state, June 20, 2013.
Blog entry by Jane Metters.