Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Since West Virginia's founding in 1863, historians have attempted to understand the forces that shaped the state's creation. Most historians have argued that the Mountain State's admission into the Union represented a grassroots rebellion among democratically-minded mountaineers who had long resisted the rule of eastern slaveholding aristocrats. The tumultuous events triggered by secession and civil war provided the opportunity for westerners to inaugurate their long desired wishes to free themselves from their allegedly tyrannical brethren and abolish the institution that many residents blamed for their woes: chattel slavery.;West Virginia's founding proved more contingent and complex than previously argued. During the early antebellum era, western Virginians displayed their loyalty to the state and to slavery through public processions, meetings, and editorials. Residents insisted, however, that their eastern brethren assist in reforming and democratizing the state's constitution. The Constitutional Convention of 1829--1830 failed to include all of western Virginians' desires but the changes included in the new constitution broadened the franchise and reflected powerful market forces fundamentally politics in the Old Dominion.;The 1830 Constitution helped foster, however, a new understanding of the symbiotic relationship between slavery and democracy. Importantly, western Virginians embraced this interpretation. During the 1840s and 1850s, as national events concerning slavery became more frequent, western Virginians continued to profess their support for the peculiar institution and to the state. Such assertions contributed to the ratification of a new constitution in 1851, as western Virginians' desire for a democratized constitution finally came to fruition. The new constitution deepened residents' attachment to chattel slavery and the state, a critical development as abolitionists appeared more menacing and Republicans cultivated a presence in the Northwest. Few northwesterners supported either party because the destruction of slavery threatened the foundation of their political rights, another important development wrought by the new constitution. Rather than drifting farther apart from their eastern brethren in sentiment and principle, northwesterners drew closer and became fierce proslavery advocates.;The national crisis that began to unfold in 1860 threatened to disrupt the harmony between western and eastern Virginians. Western Virginians maintained that remaining within the Union and under the protection of the constitution would ensure democratic rights while protecting slavery, too. Though eastern Virginians voted to take the Commonwealth out of the Union, westerners differed on the path ahead. Rather than forging ahead in demolishing slavery and the state, residents debated the merits of creating a new state and how to resolve the issue of slavery. After multiple and intense debates and recognizing that the war would not end quickly, northwesterners voted to create a new slave state. West Virginia entered the Union in 1863 but its founding reflected the state's history of slavery, not the democratic revolution posited by historians. Proponents of West Virginia's founding insisted that the state's establishment would perpetuate, not undermine, racial hierarchy. While West Virginia's founders ratified a proposal to gradually emancipate slaves, emancipation would unfold over decades and shifting political and racial norms threatened to sabotage that process in the future. West Virginia's future remained firmly wedded to Virginia's slaveholding past.
Zucconi, Adam, "Bound Together: Slavery and Democracy in Antebellum Northwestern Virginia, 1815--1865" (2016). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 7058.