In 1776, Virginia adopted the state constitution written by George Mason and James Madison. The original state constitution gave voting rights to white men who owned 25 acres of improved land or 50 acres of unimproved land. Smaller land owners, business owners and anyone else who owned less than 25 acres had no voting rights. Most of the men that owned enough land to have voting rights were also slave owners.
Additionally, the state constitution allowed only two representatives from each county to sit in the state house. At the time Virginia consisted of modern day Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Virginia and West Virginia are divided geographically by the Allegheny Plateau which for a time, prevented many from venturing into what is now West Virginia. The few settlers that did migrate into the area were unable to purchase enough acreage to give them voting rights.
At the time of the state constitution, the vast majority of counties existed in the eastern part of the state where the voting land owners lived. The western counties of Kentucky and West Virginia were much larger than the eastern counties and therefore had a much smaller number of representatives in the state house. The lack of sufficient representation in state government became a concern in western counties, but without proper representation or voting men, there was little that could be done.
In 1792, the western county of Kentucky separated from Virginia and was granted statehood. The Commonwealth of Kentucky became the second state to join the newly formed United States and the western most state at the time.
Between 1816 and 1825, delegates from the western counties pushed for changes in the apportionment of representatives in the state government. The General Assembly finally gave in and reapportioned the Senate seats based upon the number of whites living in each county. This did give the western counties more representation, but they were still a minority in the General Assembly.
Through the early 1800s, there was another issue that divided the people of West Virginia and Virginia, slavery. Eastern Virginia was controlled largely by slave owners. The settlers in West Virginia owned smaller parcels of land and were not slave owners.
On October 5, 1929, a convention was called to draft a new state constitution. Some in attendance pushed for the new constitution to grant voting rights to all white men, regardless if they owned land or not. However, the conservatives in the eastern part of the state, who were in the majority, managed to defeated every effort to make this change to the new constitution.
When the vote when to the residents of the state, Virginia voters passed the new state constitution 26,055 to 15,566. In the western counties, the vote was 8,365 to 1,383 to reject the new constitution. Many began to speak about the possibility of breaking away from Virginia.
The 1830s and 1840s saw the issue of slavery dominating not only the differences between Virginia and West Virginia but the differences between the northern and southern states.
In 1850, the Virginia General Assembly knew they had to do something to appease the residents in the west. They agreed to changes to the state constitution that now allowed all white men 21-years and older to have the right to vote regardless if they were land owners or not. They also agreed to let the election of the governor and judges to be decided by the people.
These changes were readily agreed to by the western counties, however, the eastern slave owners managed to pass a provision that allowed for property to be taxed based upon it total value. In the past, that included taxation on slaves since they were considered property. The new provision reduced the taxes paid on slaves, thus reducing the total taxes paid by the eastern slave owners. This is turn placed a larger tax burden on the people in the western counties, since few of them owned slaves.
Talks of secession from Virginia increased.
In 1861, the Civil War broke out between the northern free states and southern slave states. Virginia was a slave state and home to the Confederate capital in Richmond.
On April 17, 1861, delegates in the Virginia General Assembly held a convention to draw up papers of secession from the Union. Delegates from the western counties were against secession so they left the convention and vowed to separate themselves from Virginia.
From November 1861 through February 1862, delegates from the western counties met in Wheeling to discuss breaking away from Virginia and forming their own state. Part of the discussion involved deciding what counties to include in their secession. By that time, Confederate troops already occupied the counties making up the Shenandoah Valley, so the delegates drew the line along the boundary of the valley. This gave them 50 counties, leaving 94 counties for Virginia.
The greatest topic of contention among the delegates was slavery. By now, some land owners had slaves, but the majority of the area did not. One option presented to the delegation was to put a process in place for a gradual emancipation of slaves within the western counties. That provision was not accepted and in the end, they adopted a policy where no new slaves or free blacks were allowed to enter the new state upon statehood.
The US Constitution requires the residents of the parent state to vote and allow for the secession of part of their state for the formation of a new state. However, by 1862, Virginia has already seceded from the United States, so the delegates in West Virginia declared that they did not need the approval from Virginia voters.
On May 13, 1862, the new government of the western counties voted to grant themselves permission to secede from Virginia and form their own state. Many people then and even today, claim that West Virginia obtained their statehood illegally because they never received permission from Virginia. It seems they want to impose the US Constitution when at that time, Virginia had rejected and seceded from.
The obstacle to West Virginia’s statehood rested with the US Congress which needed to grant statehood admission. West Virginia’s draft constitution did not truly address the issue of slavery and northern congressional leaders insisted that be changed. Some in Congress demanded West Virginia to embrace total emancipation, but that didn’t set well with some of the delegates from West Virginia.
Eventually, an agreement, known as the Willey Amendment, was reached between the West Virginia Restored Government and Congress, which read:
“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.”
On July 14, 1862, the US Senate approved a bill to admit West Virginia to the Union. This was occurred after the Senate had previously rejected a bill that did not contain the Willey Amendment. Once the amendment was written into the bill, the Senate then passed it.
On December 10, 1862, the bill to admit West Virginia into the Union was passed by the US House of Representatives.
On December 31, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill for the admission of West Virginia into the Union. Now the law needed the approval of the people of West Virginia.
On March 26, 1863, the residents of West Virginia voted in favor of statehood with the knowledge of the Willey Amendment being part of the conditions for statehood.
On this day, June 20, 1863, West Virginia officially became part of the United States of America as a free state. Technically, they were the 24th state because 11 had previously seceded from the Union. If you count the 11 Confederate states, then West Virginia is the 35th state of the US.
Sources for the above includes: West Virginia Statehood; Statehood for West Virginia: An Illegal Act?; West Virginia Enters the Union; Road to West Virginia Statehood; West Virginia Created by Secession from Southern Confederate State; Formation of West Virginia; Creation of West Virginia.