The Constitutional Convention of 1861–63 was West Virginia’s first constitutional convention and provided the foundation for state government in preparation for statehood. It convened on November 26, 1861, in Wheeling upon the authorization of the voters the previous month. Fifty-three delegates were in attendance, and John Hall of Mason County was chosen president. While nearly half of the delegates were farmers, lawyers and ministers also were numerous at the convention and wielded great influence. Methodist ministers in particular were influential.
The convention tackled the subject of statehood and, after considerable debate over the name, chose West Virginia at the suggestion of Waitman T. Willey of Monongalia County. It also addressed the question of the boundaries for the proposed state, with some conservatives attempting to derail the statehood movement by adding counties in southwestern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. In the end, the convention added Greenbrier, Mercer, McDowell, Monroe, and Pocahontas to the 39 counties originally planned for the new state. Partly as a result of the desire to keep the entire Virginia route of the B&O Railroad in Union territory, the counties of Hampshire, Hardy, Pendleton, Berkeley, Frederick, and Jefferson were given the option of joining the new state, if decided by their voters.
A controversial issue at the convention was slavery. Delegates ranged from slave owners to abolitionists. Gordon Battelle, a Methodist minister from Ohio County, called for a ban on importation of slaves into the state and for gradual emancipation. A compromise provided that no African-Americans, slave or free, could enter the new state.
The constitutional convention created a structure for the state government. Legislative elections were to be held annually. Governors were to be elected for two-year terms with no restrictions on the number of terms. County courts were abolished in favor of boards of supervisors with no judicial powers. Townships were established on the local level. A free school system was set up. An important proviso was the assumption of a proportionate share of Virginia’s antebellum debt by West Virginia and creation of a sinking fund to pay off this obligation.
The constitutional convention approved the constitution on February 18, 1862, and adjourned, subject to recall. It reconvened on February 12, 1863, with Abraham D. Soper as president and with representation from every county but Webster and Monroe. The convention met to approve constitutional provisions on slavery which Congress had insisted upon as a condition of admission of West Virginia to the Union. Slave children born after July 4, 1863, were to be freed. Slave minors were to be freed upon their 21st birthdays. A spirited debate took place over a resolution calling for compensation to slave owners for emancipated slaves, and in the end, the matter was tabled. The revised constitution was approved on February 17, and the convention adjourned. On March 26, West Virginia’s first constitution was overwhelmingly ratified by the voters, by a majority of 28,321 to 572.
Read a copy of the Constitution of 1863
This Article was written by Randall S. Gooden
Ambler, Charles H. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia: The Mountain State. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958.
Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Ambler, Charles H., Frances H. Atwood & William B. Mathews, eds. Debates and Proceedings of the First Constitutional Convention of West Virginia. Huntington: Gentry Brothers, 1939.