A founder of West Virginia, Peter Godwin Van Winkle (September 7, 1808-April 15, 1872) was born in New York City. On August 4, 1863, Van Winkle was elected as one of the first two U.S. senators from the new state of West Virginia. He is best remembered for having cast the next-to-last vote that saved President Andrew Johnson from conviction on impeachment charges in 1868, one of seven Republican ‘‘recusants’’ who joined 12 Democrats to deny Radical Republicans the necessary two-thirds majority to remove the president from office.
Van Winkle moved to Parkersburg in 1835 and was soon joined by members of his wife’s family, the Rathbones, who purchased 12,000 acres at Burning Springs, Wirt County, in 1840. This tract was the center of the oil boom in 1860 which altered the economy of the region for the next 75 years. Van Winkle practiced law in partnership with John Jay Jackson Sr. and served several years as president of the Parkersburg Board of Trustees. Van Winkle helped to organize the Northwestern Virginia Railroad, serving first as its secretary and later as its president, 1857 to 1870.
He served in the Second Wheeling Convention in 1861 and was a member of the Governor’s Council of the Reorganized Government of Virginia, 1861–63, under Governor Francis H. Pierpont. He represented Wood County in West Virginia’s First Constitutional Convention in 1861 and 1862.
As a U.S. senator, Van Winkle was a conservative who consistently voted against civil rights and black suffrage legislation. He was the only Republican to vote with Democrats against the override of President Johnson’s veto of the Second Freedman’s Bureau Bill. His vote to support the president, then, was consistent with his social and political views and his antipathy to Radical Republican policies. Since he had previously announced his intention to retire in 1869 because of declining health, it is not true, as some have claimed, that he sacrificed his career to save the president. He died in Parkersburg. His home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Read the National Register nomination.
This Article was written by Philip Sturm
Last Revised on December 09, 2015
Atkinson, George W. & Alvaro F. Gibbins. Prominent Men of West Virginia. Wheeling: W. L. Callin, 1890.
Miller, Thomas Condit, and Hu Maxwell. West Virginia and Its People vol. 3. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing, 1913.
Sturm, Philip. Senator Peter G. Van Winkle and the Andrew Johnson Impeachment Trial: A Comprehensive View. West Virginia History, (1999-2000).
Whitener, Evert F. "Peter Godwin Van Winkle." M.A. thesis, West Virginia University, 1929.
Cite This Article
Sturm, Philip "Peter Godwin Van Winkle." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 December 2015. Web. 24 February 2017.