W.Va. Statehood Was A Fight Within a Fight

WHEELING – According to Ronald Lewis, a case could be made for both sides of the secession argument that ultimately lead to West Virginia becoming a state on June 20, 1863.

On Thursday, the West Virginia University professor emeritus of history and West Virginia historian laureate made the case for what became West Virginia during a lecture at Independence Hall. Lewis said what remains the only successful secession in history was led by what he described as “high-minded individuals” who sought to advance to democracy rather than conserve a slavocracy.

Lewis said slavery was always at the core of what made northern and western residents want to secede, as was the lack of political power and representation citizens in those portions of what was then Virginia had.

“It was a matter of control and power … the have-nots wanting to move forward and being held back,” he said. “That is enough for any man to fight, especially in the 19th century.”

That desire to progress led those residents to lead a “revolution within a revolution” that coincided with the Civil War. Lewis said residents in the western part of the state felt they were not being accurately or fairly represented in decision making, with aristocrats and the wealthy making a majority of the decisions.

Lewis pointed to a $50 million investment in economic development in the 1850s, only $25,000 of which was given to the western part of the state. Most of that money in the west, Lewis said, was used to build the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

After working diligently to create a new state between 1861 and 1863 – much of it in Wheeling, West Virginia was approved as the 35th state in the Union.

Lewis said the new state’s constitution was groundbreaking in several ways that show the desires of those leaders and residents. It outlined the process of how to change the constitution in the future, included provisions for equal representation and taxation and the gradual emancipation of slaves. Those ideas, he said, were forged in Wheeling, which can not be overlooked.

“It was appropriate Wheeling was the first capital, because it was a hotbed of activity,” he said.