One hundred and fifty years ago this week, citizens of western Virginia were excited with anticipation. A vote was to be held to allow them to endorse or reject the formation of the newly formed state of West Virginia.
They thought, in fact, that they had already approved statehood by voting 18,862 in favor and only 514 against in February 1862. But when the constitution arrived in Washington, the U.S. Congress threw the people in western Virginia a curve. Congress added the Willey Amendment to the new state’s constitution, so when it was approved by both the Senate and the House and signed by President Lincoln, the state still had to vote again for ratification.
The Willey Amendment placated Congress. They changed the state constitution prior to giving their approval and requiring that “the children of slaves born within the limits of this state after the fourth day of July, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, shall be free; and all slaves within the said state who shall, at the time aforesaid, be under the age of ten years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-one years; and all slaves over ten and under twenty-one years, shall be free when they arrive at the age of twenty-five years; and no slave shall be permitted to come into the state for permanent residence therein.”
Newspapers across western Virginia urged citizens to support the state in the upcoming election. The Wheeling Intelligencer newspaper went so far as to announce “If we vote it down now, we shall sink it and the new State with it, and all our prosperity, material and moral, along with both, if not forever, at least for a period none of us survive.”
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