State founder and U.S. Senator Waitman Thomas Willey (October 11, 1811-May 2, 1900) is sometimes called the Father of West Virginia. He was born near Farmington and grew up on his family’s farm. He was self-taught until he entered Madison College in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1831. He received his education as a lawyer during apprenticeships to Philip Doddridge and John C. Campbell in Wellsburg. Willey began his law practice in 1833 in Morgantown, where his career as a member of the Whig political party was launched with his election as clerk of the Monongalia County Court (1841–52). He was noted as an orator and debater. He frequently quoted Greek and Roman classics as well as the Bible in his speeches.
Willey was a delegate to the 1850–51 Virginia Constitutional Convention, where his speech ‘‘Liberty and Union’’ brought his first statewide recognition. He argued that ‘‘Liberty and Union are indissoluble.’’ He was defeated as the Whig candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1859 but was selected as a delegate to the Secession Convention of 1861. His oratory against the ordinance of secession gained him many enemies. ‘‘Will you bring this desolation upon us?’’ he asked Virginians. ‘‘Will you expose our wives and children to the ravages of civil war?’’
Virginia seceded nonetheless, and when the pro-Union Reorganized Government was established at Wheeling, Willey was elected by the legislature to a seat representing Virginia in the U.S. Senate. Although opposed to secession, Willey was not at first in favor of a new state. He gradually changed his opinion. He proposed the West Virginia Statehood Bill in the Senate and saw to its passage and later signing by President Lincoln. He was then elected as one of West Virginia’s first two U.S. senators and served from 1863 to 1871.
Although previously an owner of domestic slaves at his home in Morgantown, Willey spoke eloquently for suffrage for African-Americans at the 1872 Constitutional Convention that produced West Virginia’s current constitution. ‘‘But why all this hostility to the poor Negro?’’ he asked. ‘‘In war we send him to the battlefront, in peace we impose on him all the burdens and duties of any other citizen. Then why should he not vote?’’
Willey is remembered for the Willey Amendment, which provided for the emancipation of slaves as a precondition for the creation of West Virginia. Willey never retired from public life. He was called on for speeches at special events, such as Morgantown’s centennial celebration. He died in Morgantown. His home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Read the National Register nomination.
This Article was written by Jeanne Grimm
Last Revised on February 12, 2013
Ambler, Charles H. Waitman Thomas Willey: Orator, Churchman, Humanitarian. Huntington: Standard Printing & Pub. Co., 1954.