In the bitter aftermath of the Civil War, ex-Confederates were initially denied key political rights, including the right to vote and to hold political office. They and their sympathizers, and even moderate opponents who thought that political penalization of former Rebels had become excessive, joined in 1870 in electing a Democratic-Conservative legislature and governor of West Virginia. This first non- Republican regime since statehood immediately set out to undo the ‘‘Yankee’’ constitution of 1863. The legislature on February 23, 1871, called for a referendum on a proposal to hold a new constitutional convention.
Generally opposed to anything that Republican Unionists had achieved, the advocates of change enunciated several specific objections to the Constitution of 1863. They attacked the lack of protection from political proscription such as the former Confederates suffered, the free public school system, the township system of government, a judicial scheme that strayed from familiar Virginia roots, the secret ballot, the role of ministers in public office, and the alleged high cost of government.
The close results of the convention referendum and the later ratification of the new constitution reflected the acrimonious split that characterized state politics at the time. In August 1871, the convention proposal carried by 2,562 votes, 30,220 to 27,658. The result of the delegate election on October 26, 1871, was more extreme, as 66 of the 78 delegates were Democrats. The minority of 11 Republicans and one Unionist Democrat became known as the Twelve Apostles, whose hard task was to maintain the statemakers’ faith against heavy odds.
Meeting in a converted Methodist church in Charleston on January 16, 1872, the convention lasted for 84 days before pointedly adjourning on April 9, 1872, the anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. It selected former Confederates to all convention offices, including the president, Samuel Price of Greenbrier County, the former lieutenant governor of secessionist Virginia. Price, in turn, appointed former Confederates to most standing committee chairmanships.
Despite the rhetoric, convention measures did not reach the revolutionary extremes some expected. Former Confederates often vented their anger in nasty debate about whether to place the U.S. flag in the hall, Bill of Rights content, African-American voting and office-holding, and the free public school system. The influence of moderate former Confederates, the desire for northern investment, and the fear of operation of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution tempered results. In the end, the right of blacks to vote and to seek public office remained. The free public school system survived intact and segregated. A fortress bill of rights maintained the supremacy of individual civil rights in peace and war. Oral voting was an option to the ballot. The convention resurrected the county court, created a new judicial system, returned to limited biennial legislative sessions, lengthened executive terms, and maintained a weak governorship.
On August 22, 1872, the electorate ratified the new constitution by a vote of 42,344 to 37,777. At the same election, the voters rejected a separate controversial convention proposition that would have restricted office-holding to whites.
This Article was written by John Edmund Stealey III
Bastress, Robert M. The West Virginia State Constitution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Journal of Constitutional Convention, Assembled at Charleston, West Virginia, Jan. 16, 1872. Charleston: Henry S. Walker, Printer, 1872.
Cite This Article
Stealey III, John Edmund "Constitutional Convention of 1872." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 08 December 2011. Web. 23 February 2017.