On Jan. 14, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution urging those counties in Virginia to abandon the Old Dominion and join their state, just as the founders of West Virginia did during the Civil War. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. reiterated the message Tuesday during a news conference with Gov. Jim Justice (R-W.Va.).
However, this symbolic resolution of support for Virginia’s counties misinterprets history. West Virginia’s founders launched their own state government to challenge a small but powerful governing elite in Virginia. Their project was to expand democratic participation and challenge the authority of those who held the state hostage to minority interests. Today, it is the gun-control reformers, not the Second Amendment sanctuaries, that are following in the tradition of challenging powerful entrenched interests like the gun lobby to make the voice of the people heard.
Since 1830, western grievances had dominated Virginia politics. At three state constitutional conventions, western advocates mostly failed to eliminate special privileges enjoyed by slaveholders, largely concentrated in eastern Virginia. These advocates, later the founders of West Virginia, were not anti-slavery. They were anti-slaveholder. They thought that government in Virginia was undemocratic, serving eastern slaveholders’ special interests over those of the citizenry.
And they were right that slaveholders held a position of tremendous economic and political power. They benefited from a provision in the state Constitution that taxed slave property at a fraction of market value.
In a form of gerrymandering, Virginia’s legislature was also apportioned to suit slaveholders. Operating under the “mixed basis,” Virginia’s legislative districts were apportioned according to a ratio of white citizens and the value of all property they held. Factoring in property meant that eastern slaveholders, the wealthiest people in the state, received extra representation in the state legislature. A western delegate might represent 1,000 citizens, on average poorer and non-slaveholding, whereas an eastern delegate might represent just 500 citizens by virtue of their immense property of enslaved people. In a literal sense, slaveholders’ wealth earned them a more powerful vote.
Slaveholders argued that those with the most invested in the state deserved the most say in its government, but western reformers denounced the mixed basis as undemocratic. They wanted to replace it by simply using the white basis, or the white population size, to determine districts. Western leaders managed to negotiate the white basis for the lower house in 1850, but the mixed basis held for the Virginia Senate.
Westerners despaired at ever passing legislation if the Senate remained artificially packed with slaveholders. Although relieved at this limited victory, western politicians felt frustrated that they had to cut deals to achieve political equality among voters, which they saw as a nonnegotiable natural right. Western reformers also unsuccessfully campaigned for the secret ballot. They argued that viva voce voting (in which a voter had to publicly proclaim his choice) pressured poorer citizens to vote in lockstep with their wealthier neighbors, from whom they might earn wages, rent land or draw loans.
In addition, western advocates pushed for a public education system, which they imagined as a tool for social mobility and as a safeguard of liberty. Waitman T. Willey, West Virginia’s first senator, explained that “Knowledge is power; and to keep the masses in ignorance is a necessary precaution to keep them in subjection.” He described slaveholders’ resistance to public education as a symptom of their general hostility to “the great fundamental political right of the majority to rule.” However, easterners dismissed education as a waste of taxpayer funds. They already thought that democratic participation was a privilege, not a right, and so the state should not bother educating impoverished white families that had no business guiding Virginia.
The regional tension culminated in 1861, when eastern delegates outvoted western ones to bring Virginia into the Confederacy. Richmond mobs then chased the overwhelmingly pro-Union western delegates out of the city. Western reformers could have held their tongues and silently hoped for a Union victory, or they could have fled to the North. Instead, they seized a chance to implement their reforms in a new state.
They were prepared to first simply eliminate slaveholders’ special privileges, but instead adopted gradual emancipation to appease President Abraham Lincoln. Even so, they remained concerned that the wealthy might find ways to disadvantage poorer citizens with less of a voice. Article I of the West Virginia Constitution guaranteed that “Every citizen shall be entitled to equal representation in the Government, and in all apportionments of representation, equality of numbers” would be respected.
Remembering slaveholders’ tax breaks in Virginia, the West Virginia Constitution also mandated that “taxation shall be free and equal throughout the State, and all property, both real and personal, shall be taxed in proportion to its value.” The founders of West Virginia also created the South’s first public education system, with West Virginia University as its capstone.
The choice to stay in the Union and usher in these reforms was dangerous. Willey and Francis H. Pierpont, the provisional West Virginia governor, were both targets of the 1863 Jones-Imboden Confederate calvary raid. Willey was tipped off just before the raiders arrived and fled along with a prominent local Unionist banker. The raiders prepared to burn his home instead, but Willey’s wife shamed them by declaring: “Mr. Willey is not here, and he won’t be for as long as you are around. So you rebels can just act like gentlemen and turn around and head for home.” When the raiders remained unconvinced, she won them over with an offer of a hot meal and bath. Pierpont was safe in Wheeling, though his library at home in Fairmont did not escape the torch.
Despite the personal intimidation, West Virginia’s founders continued their work of ratifying a state Constitution to cement their reform agenda, seeing it as a permanent foundation for a state that valued equality and democracy. These westerners had revolted at tremendous risk to ensure a government that would be responsive to the will of all citizens. These roots are why it is so perplexing that West Virginia would invoke its founding as a rationale to thwart a voter mandate on gun control in 2020.
Today, Virginia’s legislature is doing precisely what West Virginia’s founders wanted it to do in the antebellum era: be responsive to its citizens. At a time when most of Virginia’s voters support each gun-control measure planned by the legislature (86 percent of voters favor background checks, for example), West Virginia’s resolution is tipping the scales in favor of special interests over the people, ultimately doing a disservice to the founders it claims to venerate.