Lincoln, Secession, and the Formation of West Virginia
On June 20, 1863, exactly 140 years ago during the Civil War, West Virginia was admitted into the Union as the 35th state (or the 24th state if the secession of the eleven Southern states is taken into account). The same day, Arthur Boreman was inaugurated as West Virginia’s first state governor.
Settlement of western Virginia came gradually in the 18th century as pioneers slowly made their way across the Allegheny Plateau. The region became increasingly important to the Virginia state government at Richmond in the 19th century, but the prevalence of small farms as well as the absence of slavery began to separate it from the east.
When Virginia voted to secede after the outbreak of the Civil War, many western counties were opposed to secession. President Lincoln moved promptly to contest Confederate control of western Virginia when Virginia seceded. Within three weeks federal actions clearly indicated that the area was off-limits to the Confederacy. Arms and ammunition were rushed to Union sympathizers to aid in the formation of militia units, some of which were promptly mustered into federal service. Lincoln restored western Virginia’s economic activities with the neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania and made special arrangements to continue federal mail delivery there, a service discontinued elsewhere in Virginia and the Confederacy.
On June 11, 1861, delegates meeting at Wheeling nullified the Virginian ordinance of secession and proclaimed “The Restored Government of Virginia,” headed by Francis Pierpont. In April 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the admission of West Virginia into the Union, effective June 20, 1863.
The Southern secessionists claimed that according to the Constitution every state had the right to leave the Union. Lincoln claimed that they did not have that right. He opposed secession because he believed it to be unlawful and that it would destroy the world’s only existing democracy. Ironically, however, Lincoln later referred to the formation of West Virginia as “secession” from the Old Dominion! The formation of the new state was attributable to the insecurity of western Virginians and the conviction that the Confederate government that exercised jurisdiction over them did not protect their vital interests—in other words, the very same factors that accounted for the secession of the Southern states! You will recall that Lincoln’s election led Southerners to conclude that the vital interests of the slave states would not be secured by remaining in the Union and under the jurisdiction of the central government at Washington.
In his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, Lincoln said:
Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.
This was the same Lincoln who had earlier said, “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world…. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much territory as they inhabit.”
In his book The Real Lincoln, Thomas DiLorenzo marshals abundant evidence that virtually every political leader of the time and earlier believed that the states had a right of secession. Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address, said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left to combat it.” Fifteen years later, after the New England Federalists attempted to secede, Jefferson said, “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in the union…I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’”
At Virginia’s ratification convention, the delegates said, “The powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression.” In Federalist Paper 39, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, clarified what “the people” meant when he said that the proposed Constitution would be subject to ratification by the people, “not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong.” In a word, states were sovereign; the federal government was a creation, an agent, a servant of the states.
On the eve of the war, even unionist politicians saw secession as the right of states. Maryland Representative Jacob M. Kunkel said, “Any attempt to preserve the Union between the States of this Confederacy by force would be impractical, and destructive of republican liberty.” Just about every major Northern newspaper editorialized in favor of the South’s right to secede:
Today, Americans celebrate Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but H. L. Mencken correctly evaluated the speech: “It is poetry not logic; beauty, not sense.” Lincoln said that the soldiers sacrificed their lives for the cause of self-determination—for a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Mencken says: “It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of people to govern themselves.”
In the end, the South seceded because of Lincoln’s encroachment on that vision. The framers of the Constitution had a deathly fear of federal government abuse. They saw state sovereignty as a protection. That’s why they gave us the 9th and 10th Amendments. They saw secession as the ultimate protection against Washington tyranny.
The right of Southerners to defend themselves against the invasion of their duly constituted nation was also recognized by foreign nations, especially Britain. The British press wrote, “It does seem the most monstrous of anomalies that a government founded on the ‘sacred right of insurrection’ should pretend to treat as traitors and rebels six or seven million people who withdrew from the Union, and merely asked to be left alone.” Again, the British asked, “With what pretence of fairness can you Americans object to the secession of the Southern States when your nation was founded on secession from the British Empire?”
Perhaps the best observation was made by Charles Dickens: “The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states.”
June 19, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.