Strictly Business: West Virginian Statehood & The Geography of Poverty

“God has blessed West Virginia with prolific hand; a topography grand to contemplate; a wealth unparalleled in coal, iron and oil—her hills fairly groan with undeveloped resources, and all of these at the very threshold of the great marts of trade and commerce of our country. Here, above all sections, should peace, plenty, and happiness reign supreme. On the contrary, your committee found disorder, riot, bitterness, and bloodshed in their stead.”

– Senator James E. Martine

On January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation, a document that would come to be the defining moment of his Presidency and one which has proven to be the fulcrum upon which all American history sits. Whenever we read the Proclamation today, our eyes naturally fixate on a section of the document’s second paragraph, which reads“all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”And then, if you’re anything like me, you just stop and don’t bother to read the last four-fifths of the Proclamation because it’s really wordy and filled with 19th century legalese that bears but a passing resemblance to what we now consider to be the English language. The only problem is that there’s a lot of crucial information in all of that legalese that pertains to how the US government was to go about ensuring that slaves would be thenceforward and forever free.

Instead of trying to get slavery formally abolished through an act of Congress, as he would two years later with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure that was within his powers as Commander-in-Chief of the US military. As a result, Lincoln’s executive order only applied to the 10 Confederate states who were in open rebellion from the US government and did not pertain to Confederate lands that had already been occupied by Union forces and had no bearing on Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri—the 4 border states who had allowed slavery, but had not left the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation also did not pertain to a fifth state—a collection of breakaway counties who had seceded from the Confederacy in the fall of 1861 and who had been granted admission to the Union only the day before the proclamation was issued—the State of West Virginia.

abe4A Statue of Lincoln Outside of the State Capitol in Charleston, WV

It’s actually rather fitting that West Virginia’s entry into statehood has been so thoroughly overshadowed in the historical record. From the day of its founding forward, West Virginia has been little more than an afterthought to those who live outside of her borders. As a state and as a people, West Virginia has never really mattered to the rest of the country. The only thing America has ever wanted West Virginia for is her resources. This much was true from the moment West Virginia was granted statehood and is evident in President Lincoln’s Opinion on the Admission of West Virginia to the Union.

At first, Lincoln had been wary of allowing the new state—which was originally named Kanawha before the state’s legislature voted to change it to West Virginia—into the Union because there were doubts about the constitutionality of such an action. West Virginia holds the distinction of being the first and only state in American history to be carved out from another pre-existing state, which is only allowed in the Constitution if the state from which it used to belong gives its consent. Of course, with Virginia having seceded from the Union, the creation of West Virginia became very constitutionally murky, what with it being a secession from a state that was in turn seceding from the very nation that the new state wanted to join.

Eventually, and with some convincing from the Wheeling government’s leader, Francis H. Pierpont, Lincoln became convinced that America needed to accept West Virginia into the Union, justifying the move as being a wartime measure that would establish no constitutional precedent for times of peace. The only constitutional obstacle lay in the fact that the vote on whether or not to have one part of the state secede from Confederate Virginia and apply for statehood in the Union was conducted only within the area of the state where secession was overwhelmingly favored, allowing just 1/3 of Virginians to vote on a matter that required the consent of the entire Virginia legislature. Lincoln got around this snag by telling Confederate Virginians that they could have voted in the election, but that they simply chose not to, and there was nothing in the constitution about providing legal protection to an rebellious electorate that was too apathetic to make it to the ballot box.

In his opinion, President Lincoln made clear that West Virginia’s admission into the Union was very much a matter of X’s and O’s, noting that West Virginian statehood would make Virginia’s reentry into the Union more difficult than it would have been had the old state remained intact, but ultimately coming to the conclusion that, “we could not save as much in this quarter by rejecting the new state, as we should lose by it in West Virginia”, and acknowledging that,“We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us.” While Lincoln was touched by the loyalty and sacrifice of the supporters of Wheeling’s Pro-Union government over the previous two years, his decision to grant West Virginia statehood was strictly business. As he would later tell Francis Pierpont while reflecting on his receipt of the telegram that finally convinced him to admit West Virginia to the Union, “I said to myself, this is not a constitutional question, it is a political question. The government [Restored Government of Virginia](1) has been struggling for its existence for nearly two years, the friends of this measure think it will strengthen its friends and weaken its enemy, it is a step towards the suppression of the rebellion and I will take it.”

When President Lincoln formally approved West Virginian statehood on New Years Eve of 1862, he did so under the condition that the West Virginia constitution include a provision for the emancipation of the state’s slaves. Coming from the slaveholding state of Virginia, one might imagine there would have been significant backlash to Lincoln’s stipulation, but that simply wasn’t the case. Once it came time to address the issue in the forming of the state’s constitution, an amendment that was submitted to the people of West Virginia by Senator Waitman T. Willey calling for the gradual emancipation(2) of West Virginia’s slaves was ratified by a vote of 27,749 to 572. The reason for such a lopsided vote was pretty simple: most West Virginians didn’t own any slaves.

Even though it was a part of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the lifestyle and economic motivations of West Virginians were much more similar to their fellow Appalachian brothers and sisters in Ohio and Pennsylvania than they were to their plantation owning kin to the east. Before the start of the Civil War there were 18,371 slaves in Western Virginia who constituted a little under 5% of the region’s population. At that same time there were 472,494 slaves in Eastern Virginia, a number that amounted to nearly 39% of its population. 18,371 vs. 772,494. It’s pretty easy to see why one part of the state was willing to die for the right to keep slaves while the other part collectively shrugged its shoulders at the notion of emancipation. For the most part, West Virginians didn’t oppose slavery; they were just indifferent to it because 99% of the population didn’t own any slaves, and it’s not a tough thing to give up something you never had in the first place.

Of course, the downside to breaking away from a southern slave-holding state using counties that were all but devoid of slaves is that most of those counties were devoid of wealth as well. Even though West Virginia consistently ranks one spot above Mississippi in terms of economic indicators like median household income and the like, I would argue that, historically speaking, West Virginia is the poorest state in America. Prior to the Civil War, Mississippi was absolutely bursting at the seams with cash and, while that wealth was concentrated in the hands of a select few, it was still there, as it was in all of the other southern economies that nose-dived after slavery was banned. West Virginia never had that period of antebellum prosperity and, as a result, they never had that cache of wealth to draw from that was the saving grace of many Confederate states. Unlike their southern neighbors, there has never been a time that West Virginians weren’t poor and that sort of entrenched poverty still shows itself today, 151 years after its founding.

At the county level, West Virginia has the smallest percentage of households with annual incomes of at least $191,679 a year, which serves as the bottom threshold for ranking within the nation’s top 5%. The majority of counties in West Virginia don’t have more than 1% of its households above the $191,679 mark and it is the only state in America that doesn’t contain a single county with a higher proportion of affluence than America as a whole.By way of contrast, Virginia is still one of the richest states in the nation and actually contains the 3 counties with the highest percentage of top 5% earning households in America. In fact,Fairfax County, VA by itself has nearly six times as many households in the national top 5% of income as the entirety of West Virginia. The economies of the two states may have changed considerably since West Virginia first split off, but the end results are the same. Old money begets new money, and no money begets poverty.


(1) The Restored Government of Virginia was the official name given to the Pro-Union legislature that was established in Wheeling shortly after the start of the war. After West Virginia was officially granted statehood in June of 1863, the Restored Government of Virginia moved to Alexandria where it presided over the Union-held portions of Virginia for the rest of the war.

(2) According to the Willey Amendment, slaves in West Virginia were granted their freedom according to their age. For example, all newborn children of slaves would be born free, but that child’s mother, if she were between the ages of 10 and 21, wouldn’t be emancipated until she was 25. The amendment did not specify a date of emancipation for slaves older than 25, but it would ultimately be a moot point as West Virginia would abolish slavery in February of 1865.

Categories: Book Excerpts/News, History, Poverty

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