Last Friday was the celebration of West Virginia
Day. Many businesses and government buildings were closed and employees
were granted a holiday in recognition of the statehood of West Virginia.
I am a new citizen of the state, and this holiday
was unfamiliar. To understand the celebration of my new state’s
birthday, I had to do a bit of studying. I confess that I have much to
learn and there was no better time than West Virginia Day to begin.
Being from Ohio, I was taught that West Virginia
separated from Virginia over slavery. I have come to understand that
perhaps that lesson is not the entire story.
On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the 35th
state in the Union. It was indeed a state born out of the conflict of
the Civil War. I have read several differing ideas behind the cause of
this separation and formation of the state, but I believe the three
primary reasons West Virginia wanted to break away from Virginia were
inequality in taxation, unequal representation in the legislature, and
unequal distribution of funds for public works.
It seems to me that problems between the eastern
and western parts of Virginia began as early as the adoption of the
Virginia State Constitution. At that time, voting rights were granted
only to white males owning at least 25 acres of improved or 50 acres of
unimproved land. This discriminated against the emerging class of small
land owners in western Virginia. The constitution also delegated a
disproportionate representation in the General Assembly, which created
As the conflict continued between east and west,
the beginning of the Civil War heightened the friction even more. When
the questions of Virginia’s position came to a vote, the majority cast
their ballots to join the newly-formed Confederate States of America. Of
the 47 delegates from western Virginia, 32 (more than two-thirds) voted
against leaving the Union.
Those opposing the separation immediately began
work on a “Restored Government,” and on June 20, 1861, this new form of
government pledged its support to the federal government in Washington.
Within the next year, “Restored Government” passed an act giving formal
consent to the formation of a new state.
On May 29, 1862, a bill was presented to the U.S.
Congress requesting that a new state be formed and admitted to the
Union. The bill was passed and signed into law by President Abraham
Lincoln on Dec. 31, 1862. On Apr. 20, 1863, Lincoln issued a
proclamation through which, 60 days later, West Virginia would become a
state. June 20 is now observed as “West Virginia Day,” a legal holiday.
Happy birthday, West Virginia! Though born in a
tumultuous time, your spirit and determination remain strong and true.
There is nothing simple about our statehood or our people. From the
crooked edges and mountainous boundaries of her borders to the
whitewater of her rivers, West Virginia is unique and separate. She
never really belonged as part of her mother state of Virginia. She
needed to be her own entity just as her people needed to be their own.
The state motto puts it best, “Montani Semper Liberi (Mountaineers are
always free),” and independent and free she will always be.