On this dayNov 26, 1861

State of West Virginia Formed; Slavery Authorized

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On November 26, 1861, a section of the state of Virginia began proceedings to separate and create the new state of West Virginia. The new state was formed from a region of Virginia that strongly opposed the State’s decision to secede from the Union and to join the Confederacy in the Civil War. That disagreement was largely related to the institution of slavery.

As the Northern and Southern regions of the country represented a growing divide between abolition and slavery throughout the first decades of the 19th century, so did the Western and Eastern regions of Virginia. Settlers of western Virginia generally did not own enslaved people, while eastern Virginia planters held many enslaved people and much of the power in the Virginia legislature (due to the larger populations in their region, fueled in part by the enslaved people).

When voters of eastern Virginia voted to join the Confederacy on April 17, 1861, a group of western delegates led by John S. Carlile walked out and swore to form a government that would remain loyal to the Union. Over the next few months, delegates held an alternative convention and voted to form the new state of West Virginia. At the Constitutional Convention that began on November 26, 1861 and lasted until February 1862, delegates considered key decisions such as which Virginia counties would be included in their new state.

Slavery was the most contentious topic of discussion for drafters of the West Virginia constitution; some residents of the new state were slave owners, but the Union would not permit West Virginia to be admitted as a state if it permitted slavery. One delegate, Methodist minister Gordon Battelle, proposed gradual emancipation for currently enslaved black people in the new West Virginia state boundaries and freedom for any enslaved child born after July 5,1865. Most delegates rejected that idea, however, and instead embraced a provision banning all black people, enslaved or free: “No slave shall be brought,” the draft constitution read, “or free person of color be permitted to come into this State for permanent residence.”

On February 12, 1863, however, the delegates met again and adopted revisions mandated by Congress. Under the final constitution, enslaved children born after July 4, 1863, were to be freed immediately, and all other enslaved children were to be freed when they turned twenty-one. The revised constitution with this policy of gradual abolition was approved days later and West Virginia gained statehood.

Because the January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation legally freed enslaved people in all rebelling territories, legal slavery actually ended in Virginia before it ended in West Virginia – but Virginia actually defied the proclamation through the end of the war, and West Virginia ultimately abolished slavery in 1865, shortly before passage of the 13th Amendment. Today, West Virginia is one of only three states in the United States that began through secession from an existing state, and it is the only state formed and granted admission during the Civil War.

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