One problem: The U.S. Constitution does not allow a new state to be formed without the consent of the original state.
With Virginia having left the Union, Western Virginia delegates formed a Reorganized Government of Virginia, which was recognized by President Lincoln as the official government of Virginia. That government granted itself permission to form the state of West Virginia. Lincoln reluctantly approved statehood, which became official on June 20, 1863.
“It is said the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession,” stated Lincoln, whose cabinet was split on the issue. “Well, if we can call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution, and secession in favor of the Constitution.”
That hillbilly image
How did this rich history get buried?
The state later became known for labor strife, natural resources and economic struggles, none of which relates to the Civil War era. And for the waves of immigrants who settled in West Virginia in the early 1900s, the state’s rogue origins were inconsequential. Another reason might be divided loyalties, because Western Virginia provided troops to both the Union and Confederate forces. (I come from Union territory, but it’s also the birthplace of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a statue of whom graces the plaza of the Harrison County Courthouse.)
During my lifetime, it has been defensiveness, not the state’s history, that has bound West Virginians. Put it this way: When I was a kid, a state politician named Manchin was railing against hillbilly portrayals of West Virginians on “Love Boat” and a CBS movie called “Angel City.” In recent years, another state politician named Manchin was railing against hillbilly portrayals of West Virginians in a casting call for a horror movie.
Dick Cheney in 2008 made an inbreeding joke to chuckling reporters at the National Press Club (“So we had Cheneys on both sides of the family, and we don’t even live in West Virginia”). The year before, the WVU student paper denounced nationally syndicated radio host Jim Bohannon’s observation that there’s nothing to do in Morgantown but “mine coal and molest livestock.”
If outsiders want to go for the cheap, ill-informed yuk, or are unaware the state even exists, that’s their business. I for one am hopeful that the current West Virginia students will be more informed about their state heritage than I was. The state’s 150th anniversary in 2013 should spur interest, too.
“Eyes will be open to some of this positive history, and that will be their perspective from then on,” said John Lilly, editor of Goldenseal, a magazine that celebrates the state’s traditions.
A time to celebrate
West Virginians, particularly transplanted ones, are a wistful lot. Our eyes turn misty even before John Denver completes the first verse in the unofficial state anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
A joke we tell on ourselves: How many West Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to change the bulb, and two to sit around and talk about how much they miss the old one.
In this case, however, a look back might just result in a step forward. Rise up, West Virginians, and embrace the true meaning of state motto “Mountaineers Are Always Free.” Celebrate that rebellious birth.
Not just for the sesquicentennial, but forevermore.