The American colonies were thoroughly British before 1776, and it was a big step for them to disavow their national identity. In fact, a lot of colonialists refused to get swept up in the revolutionary fervor, and stayed loyal to the King of England. Often referred to as “Tories,” many communities and even families were torn apart by the Revolutionary War. For example, Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, but his son William remained loyal to the Crown, going into exile to London after the war, never to see his father again.
150 years ago, West Virginians faced a similar situation. All their lives they had thought of themselves as Virginians—residents of one of the most revered states in the union. However, those Virginians in the sparsely populated western mountains knew that the political elites in Richmond were taking advantage of them. The injustices they felt were similar to the list of grievances against King George III of England that were outlined in the Declaration of Independence.
Since early in our history, there had been a recognition that perhaps Virginia’s western frontier should be its own state, because it was so different from the lowland plantations nearer the seaboard. Indeed, there was at least one proposal for it to be known as Vandalia, hence the festival at the West Virginia Capitol grounds each year known as the Vandalia Gathering.
It took the long simmering issue of slavery and the eventual outbreak of the Civil War to be the catalyst for the independence of Virginia’s western counties. When the slave-dependent eastern Virginian’s cast their lot with the Confederacy and withdrew from the Union, many of those in West Virginia preferred to stay allied with our nation’s government rather than the Richmond government. First, we disavowed the secession vote, and declared ourselves to be the loyalist state of Virginia. However, the ultimate goal was to establish ourselves as an independent state—the state of West Virginia.
It was a big decision for Congress and President Lincoln to approve our unique request for statehood in 1863. In normal times, the Constitution would prohibit such actions, but the Civil War provided a one-time opportunity for our freedom. We are the only state who revolted against our oppressive mother state, just as our country revolted against its oppressive mother country.
I’m grateful that my forefathers took a brave stand against the inequities they faced. Had the British quelled our rebellion, our nation’s founding fathers would likely have been hanged, and the patriots who formed George Washington’s rag-tag Continental Army would have faced serious consequences. Similarly, had the Confederacy won the Civil War, the mighty state of Virginia would have rejected the notion of our independence, and the leaders of our statehood movement might have faced the hangman’s noose as well.
Exactly two weeks ago, West Virginians celebrated our 150th birthday as a state. Today, Americans celebrate our 237th birthday as a country. All of this is thanks to the strong sense of independence that flows through our veins, as passed down from our brave founding fathers. I am deeply appreciative!
The golden dome of West Virginia's Capitol reflects the fireworks set off to celebrate the state's sesquicentennial celebration, as I viewed them from the riverbank at my alma mater, the University of Charleston.