Monday, May 23, 2011

Not a bastard

Rodney Dangerfield was a hard core New Yorker, yet in some ways, he must surely have a West Virginian connection. Just like Rodney, it seems we get no respect. The mainstream media and societal trendsetters in major metropolitan areas like Hollywood and New York, as well as regular folks in regular states, seem to always want to stereotype us in less than flattering ways. It makes West Virginians (and I mean this to include those who may not have been born here, but who consider themselves as West Virginians) feel like we always have to prove ourselves. Thus, we revel in our successes, and savor our victories. We band together to support each other.

Why do we feel this way? This is a theory about one way West Virginia came to be seen as the red-headed stepchild (with no offense intended to red-heads or stepchildren, but merely as a phrase to describe anyone as undervalued and/or not fully accepted outcasts).

Our state was first populated by hardy settlers who decided the eastern seaboard area was not for them. Whether by choice or necessity, they moved from the flat lands of eastern Virginia to the rugged terrain of the Appalachian mountains. After all, much of the good land was already taken by rich planters, many of whom had been granted royal decrees of land by the king. Rather than buy existing land, early settlers were brave enough to venture into the wilderness to claim their own land that had not been owned yet (notwithstanding the claims by Native Americans, who mostly used West Virginia as a shared hunting ground). It wasn't easy living there, but at least they were free.

As the exploration and settlement of America continued, the flat landscape and rich farmlands of the midwest beckoned. To many, the Appalachian mountains were merely an annoyance to get beyond to better land on the other side. A flood of new settlers for the rest of America bypassed our state. Those who stayed in our hills and hollers were hard workers who loved the land as well as the majestic views in our world. The difficulty in travel here made us more isolated, but I think we liked it that way.

In the beginning, the original state of Virginia stretched all the way to the Ohio River. However, the vast majority of the Old Dominion population lived in the flatter eastern part of the state which had been settled first. For the most part, the citizens there looked down on the western counties as less civilized. Heck, we even elected frontiersman Daniel Boone (who lived near Charleston at that time) to the fancy halls of the Virginia legislature!

Our needs were much different than those in the rest of the state, and those in power mostly ignored us. They apparently were happy to have our tax revenue, but we never seemed to get much of it back. The only major expenditure made by the state of Virginia within our current boundaries was the Transallegheny Lunatic Asylum at Weston. Thus, the leaders in Richmond only saw fit to send us their insanity cases.

One big difference between western and eastern Virginia was the institution of slavery. The mountainous features of the western counties were not conducive to large scale farming of tobacco, cotton, etc. Thus, we never had a large slave population compared to the rest of Virginia and other southern states. Plus, most of us were too poor to own slaves. Ours was not a slave economy. This played a major role in the birth of West Virginia as its own state.

When the civil war came along, we saw no need to secede from the country we loved. We were strong believers in the United States. If the folks in Richmond were going to join the Confederacy, then this was our chance to win our freedom and go our own way. Our independent streak was strong! Thus, western counties refused to join the confederacy and originally set themselves up as the reconstituted state of Virginia. This allowed us to have a government with representation in Washington as the loyal Virginians.

What many of us in the western counties really wanted was to become our own state, rather than serving as a “shadow government” of our former state. We knew that we had not been treated fairly by the eastern Virginians who had always looked down on us. This seemed like our chance to free ourselves from their longstanding mistreatment. Otherwise, after the war would be over, we would once again be taken advantage of by Richmond.

The hard part was for the national government to decide whether the part of Virginia that stayed loyal to the union could be admitted as a new state. There was a major Constitutional obstacle--Article 4, Section 3 states “ State shall be formed or erected, within the jurisdiction of any other state, nor any state be formed by the junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned, as well as of the Congress.” Could loyalist Virginia, with an acting Governor and a portion of the Legislature sitting in Wheeling rather than Richmond legally consent to the creation of West Virginia? Even our great president from that era was torn as to what he should do. Obviously, eastern Virginia would be opposed to this, and although they were part of the Confederacy, one goal of the Civil War was to put down the rebellion and get back to being the United States. This controversy on how to get around the Constitution is why it took a few years until June of 1863 for us to become a state. It was not an easy decision. There is a famous statue of Lincoln in front of the West Virginia Capitol called “Lincoln walks at midnight” commemorating his deep contemplation of whether to allow our new state to be created.

This final decision was not without controversy. Since the Constitution clearly says that states cannot be made from other states, our statehood was questioned from the beginning. In fact, many referred to West Virginia as the bastard state, because of our illegitimate birth. From the start, we have always had to prove ourselves to others.

Once the Civil War was over, it didn't take long for the politicians in Richmond to go after us. First, they sued us over a technicality claiming that the eastern panhandle should not have been included in the new state of West Virginia. This bitterly contested case was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1871, but in the end, Virginia lost. [It was probably fortunate that the Supreme Court was able to reach its decision rather narrowly, and did not examine the overall constitutionality of our statehood.]

That was merely the first round—there was another round to go. You see, the state of Virginia had the audacity to sue West Virginia for what some would call “damages.” Before the Civil War, Virginia had sold bonds and thus taken on debt for various civil projects—primarily to improve areas now outside the boundaries of West Virginia, such as harbor improvements. After the Civil War, Richmond felt like we were liable to pay our share of debt that had been incurred while we were considered part of Virginia (regardless of the benefit to us). They contended that based on the fact that West Virginia constituted one-third of the geographic size of the original state of Virginia (despite not having one-third of the population nor holding one-third of the wealth), we should pay one-third of the bill (plus interest!). We fought their allegations, and it was a long, hard fight all the way to the Supreme Court again.

As often happens, just like Rodney, we got no respect. The U.S. Supreme Court finally decided in 1911 to side with Virginia, and we had to make a huge payment to them. The court allowed us to set up a payment schedule, because we couldn't afford to pay it all at once. However, it still made it rough on the growth and prosperity of our little state (especially during the Depression). Unfortunately, most of us have forgotten about this injustice, but at the time, most Mountain State folks were very aware of and upset about these debt payments to Virginia. There was a big celebration when the last payment was made in 1939.

Even though knowledge of these events has bypassed most current West Virginians, I think that perhaps subconsciously the questions about our heritage still impact us. Maybe it is just floating in the mountain air, or perhaps it has somehow been passed down through our DNA. Without really thinking about it, we all realize that unlike the Dakotas or the Carolinas (both equally balanced between north and south), there is no symmetry with the Virginias. Our state is sometimes seen as a sub-component of another state, unlike all other states. It really irks us when we tell someone we are from West Virginia and they reply with “Oh yeah, I drove through Roanoke once”--oblivious to the fact that West Virginia is a separate state, and not a region of Virginia.

All West Virginians have a sense of being disrespected—we tend to carry a chip on our shoulders. We know what it is like to be that red-headed stepchild, who must constantly prove worthy. Others may look down on us, but we are strong, we are independent, we are beautiful, and we are valuable. Regardless of how the Constitution might be interpreted by some, West Virginia is not the bastard state—we are the Mountain State, known as “Wild & Wonderful West Virginia.” We are the 35th star on Old Glory, and it is indeed, almost heaven.

No comments:

Post a Comment