Map of Virginia and West Virginia in 1863
Among the historical records of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are documents that illustrate the important role Congress plays in the creation of states. For West Virginia, the road to statehood was a unique one.
Disputes over the borders of Virginia began in the early 17th century with conflicting royal charters that granted overlapping territory to multiple entities. It was not until the Virginia Constitution was ratified in 1776 that the borders solidified. However, clarifying the borders did not resolve long-standing regional tensions within the state. Voting rights in Virginia were based on property holdings and many residents of western Virginia felt underrepresented as most did not own enough property to vote. In 1861 the tensions between eastern and western Virginians came to an impasse following the secession of many southern states from the Union, the battle of Fort Sumter, and President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops from each state. The Virginia state legislature passed the Order of Secession on April 17, and Virginians voted to ratify secession on May 23. Less than a month later, Pro-Union Virginians voted to form a second government, the Restored Government of Virginia, on June 17. In August, the Restored Government of Virginia voted to approve the creation of a new state, West Virginia. According to Article IV, Section III of the U.S. Constitution, no new state can be formed from the territory of an existing state without the latter’s consent.
The West Virginia Constitution was ratified by voters on November 26, 1861. In May 1862, Senator Waitman T. Willey (Unionist-VA) submitted a bill, S. 365, to Congress for the admission of West Virginia to the Union. He then proposed an amendment to the bill calling for West Virginia to amend their constitution to include the gradual emancipation of slaves in the state. On July 14, the Senate approved West Virginia’s admission to the Union, with statehood conditioned on its approval of the Willey Amendment. The House approved the bill in December. Lincoln signed the bill admitting West Virginia to the Union, on December 31. On March 26, 1863, West Virginia ratified the revised constitution to include the gradual emancipation of slaves. President Lincoln proclaimed that West Virginia would officially be recognized as a state on June 20, 1863.
Although the issue of statehood had been settled, the status of Berkeley and Jefferson Counties continued to pose a challenge. The citizens of these counties voted to join West Virginia on February 4, 1863, as permitted in the West Virginia state constitution and approved by the Restored Government of Virginia. However during Reconstruction, Virginia contested the transfer of the counties and argued that Union troops stationed at the polls in 1863 had influenced the vote. On December 5, 1865 the Virginia Assembly repealed the legislation that transferred the counties from Virginia to West Virginia. In an attempt to resolve the debate, Congress passed H.J. Res. 17 on March 10, 1866 to officially recognize the transfer of the counties to West Virginia. The debate continued and finally ended in 1871 with the U.S. Supreme Court case Virginia v. West Virginia in which the Court affirmed that the counties were part of West Virginia.