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Sectionalism and the Virginias

Sectionalism in Virginia and later West Virginia evolved as a consequence of settlement patterns and other geographic, political, social, and economic factors. As Virginians pushed west, sectional differences emerged. The area east of the fall line, the point on the rivers where the first rapids or falls were encountered, became known as the Tidewater. The territory from the fall line west to the Blue Ridge was designated the Piedmont, literally meaning the foot of the mountains. Between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains was the Shenandoah Valley. Beyond the valley was the Trans-Allegheny, today mostly West Virginia. As this section developed, the inhabitants experienced a feeling of alienation based in part on cultural and philosophical differences and the failure to legislate change to ensure equitable representation in the state capital in Richmond.

Early in the 18th century, Scotch-Irish and German settlers moved into the Shenandoah Valley from Pennsylvania and began traversing the passes through the Allegheny Mountains. These people represented different cultural backgrounds from eastern Virginians, who were largely English in origins, and they developed different economic interests. As the settlements in the Trans-Allegheny region increased, the inhabitants petitioned for the establishment of counties to provide local government and representation in the state legislature. The westerners looked to the state for the services necessary to develop their region.

Under the Virginia Constitution of 1776 each county elected two delegates to the House of Delegates. The eastern part of the state had more counties and therefore more representatives. The large, slave-holding eastern farmers opposed any tax increase to pay for internal improvements that might benefit western interests. When some Valley and Trans-Allegheny counties threatened to secede in 1816, the state senate was reapportioned to provide additional senators from the western counties. This was a hollow victory, since the senate could not initiate legislation.

Efforts to pass legislation calling for a constitutional convention were defeated in the House. Finally, a bill passed in 1828 and the Constitutional Convention of 1829–30 convened in Richmond. Efforts to address western grievances were defeated by the eastern delegates. Failure of the delegates to address suffrage, representation, and local government organization issues in the Constitution of 1830 left the residents of the Trans-Allegheny dissatisfied. They voted against adoption, but were defeated.

Efforts to provide transportation to and from the western region were hampered by eastern control of the legislature. The James River & Kanawha Canal was developed to provide a link, but when railroads became a viable option the eastern establishment continued to support the canal venture. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was restricted to the northwestern part of the state. Acts to incorporate various railroad companies were proposed, but the belief that they would be sold to the B&O quickly brought defeat. Inability to ship to eastern markets forced westerners to look to the west, shipping goods down the Ohio and Mississippi and not back through Virginia.

The two sections gradually grew apart on the issue of slavery. The general absence of slavery in the western and northwestern sectors, coupled with the eastern power base opposing many of the western issues, caused westerners to feel more kinship with northern and northwestern states. The majority of westerners did not espouse abolitionist views, but many favored gradual emancipation. Believing that slavery was a deterrent to economic growth, leaders in the Trans-Allegheny supported the view that natural resources and free workers would attract capital, industry, and people.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, immigration into the Trans-Allegheny continued from the northern states. These people brought with them cultural and philosophical differences and no ties to Virginia’s heritage and traditions. Many brought an allegiance to their native region. When the churches split north and south in the 1840s, those who aligned with the northern branches of various denominations received their literature from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. These churches served to indoctrinate the people on certain religious and social issues. Academically, westerners often continued their education in colleges in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Few traveled across the mountains to attend the University of Virginia.

When the census of 1840 provided numerical proof that the white population of the Trans-Allegheny exceeded the rest of the state, westerners demanded a referendum calling for a constitutional convention. It was not until the end of the decade that the Constitutional Convention of 1850–1851 met and produced the Constitution of 1851, which incorporated most of the reforms called for by the inhabitants of the Trans-Allegheny section.

By then, it was too late. When the Civil War came, westerners were sufficiently divided over the issues of states rights and slavery to allow outside forces to seize the opportunity to control the Trans-Allegheny section. The advance of Union forces into the area coupled with the inability of Confederate forces to establish a firm hold west of the Allegheny Mountains sealed the section’s fate.

Written by Louis H. Manarin


  1. Ambler, Charles Henry. Sectionalism in Virginia from 1776 to 1861. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1910.

  2. Ambler, Charles Henry. The Cleavage Between Eastern and Western Virginia. American Historical Review, (1909-1910).

  3. Gaines, Francis P. Jr. "The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850-51." Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1950.