This Day (Go West, Young Hayseed Edition)

Published:November 26, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1861, refugee delegates from Virginia’s secession convention assembled (for something like the third time since June) in Wheeling, this time to draft a constitution for what they now called West Virginia. As part of the proceedings, they adopted a policy of “negro exclusion,” which banned all black people—slaves and freedmen alike—from residing in the future state.

I grew up being taught that West Virginia was home to outcast, antislavery types, and indeed the first edition of that infamous textbook Our Virginia taught exactly that: “Some Virginians did not want to leave the Union,” it read. “Folks in the western part of Virginia were mostly small farmers who did not favor slavery.” In fact, the states U.S. senator, John S. Carlile, actually opposed the eventual statehood bill because it called for even a gradual emancipation of slaves.*

The second edition of Our Virginia, the one that recruited a few actual historians for guidance, was more accurate: “White farmers in the western part of the state relied far ess on slavery than those to the east.” In other words, the differences were primarily economic; the interests lie in the pocketbook and not in the fate of black people.

I do love Mary Tucker Magill‘s take on East vs. West, though. In her textbook, published way back in 1881, she writes:

The class of population in the two sections also contrasted strongly. Those in Eastern Virginia were, for the most part, the descendants of the early English settlers, proud of their birth and of their ancestral homes, living in ease and comfort with their negroes about them; while the population of West Virginia were, for the most part, hardy mountaineers, who had come in from the Western and Northern States and naturally had none of that inherited State pride which is a marked feature with Virginians. Their slave property was very inconsiderable, and they looked with jealousy on their neighbors, who lived in elegance …

That about sums it up, I think: Eastern Virginians were the cool Virginians. God knows what’s going on with those hayseeds up in the mountains!

* I know, I’m repeating myself.

IMAGE: Virginia and West Virginia by S. Augustus Mitchell Jr., 1865, from the fifth edition of Mitchell’s New General Atlas, first published in 1860. This is the map used in the Our Virginia section on West Virginia, but the textbook, sadly, seems to have a policy of no photo captions.

Discussion

2 Comments on “This Day (Go West, Young Hayseed Edition)”

  1. Ken Sullivan

    Given the choice, I guess we’ll answer to hardy mountaineer rather than hayseed.

    More seriously, things in 1861 were a little more complex than you represent. Like other border states, West Virginia initially tried to straddle the slavery issue. The “Negro exclusion” vote at the constitutional convention came a day after the delegates, on a 24-23 vote, failed to abolish slavery altogether.The abolitionists, one short of a majority, then managed to ban the importation of slaves while unfortunately accepting as a compromise that free blacks would be excluded as well. The resident black population, slave and free, was not affected one way or the other.

    As to the motivation for separate statehood, perhaps economic, yes, but based in an economics that had been playing out for decades before 1861. Our agriculture was not as conducive to slavery as that of eastern Virginia, and we had taken more whole-heartedly to industry. Over time Western Virginians came naturally enough to align their interests and allegiances with the free farmers and workers of the neighboring North and MidWest. By 1861, itfelt a lot more like loyalty or patriotism than plain bread and butter.

    And, to revive another hillbilly stereotype, one shouldn’t underestimate the power of simple contrariness. Earlier in 1861, state founder Chester Hubbard wrote, “I should like to show those traitors at Richmond that we are not to be transferred like the cattle on the hills or the slaves on their plantations without our knowledge or consent.” Mountaineers had “taken their stand under the stars and stripes,” Chester wrote, “and have no disposition to change the old flag for the new.”

    Ken Sullivan
    eWV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia

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