It has been 62 years since a new state was admitted to the Union (Alaska and Hawaii in 1959), 109 years since one was formed out of the contiguous United States (Arizona in 1912), and 158 since our own state was founded in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. It is hard then, for people today so removed from such a momentous point in history, to imagine the intense emotion, the anger and joy, the zeal and passion, and the unity that drove the statehood movement to its ultimate success.
From the outset, even before Virginia had officially ratified the Secession Ordinance, the political leaders of the western counties were preparing to take matters into their own hands. Between sessions of the Secession Convention, leaders in Western Virginia convened in Wheeling to set a course of action, and though they were by no means united in their plans for a path forward, they were bound by their staunch Unconditional Unionism.
425 of these leaders were chosen to meet at the First Wheeling Convention, 277 of them representing just six counties: the northern abolitionist strongholds of Hancock, Ohio, and Marshall; the industrial powerhouses of Monongalia and Wood; and the rural half-industrial, half-slave plantation, part Old Virginia and part new frontier, Mason County. We were the outlier, the sole major presence from the southern counties, and our delegates made their presence and opinion known.
This week, I’ll focus mostly on our delegates, and next week come back to the statehood movement as a whole.
We had 30 delegates at that First Wheeling Convention, and they came from every walk of life. Daniel Polsley and John Phelps were lawyers from Point, the Harpold Brothers and Apollo Stevens were salt furnace owners from the Bend, John Greer was a respected and elderly famer, W.W. Harper a Methodist minister and devoted abolitionist, Addison Rogers a carpenter, Major Brown a steamboat captain, and at least half of our 30, including Polsley, R.C.M. Lovell, John Hall, Joseph Machir, and Charles Waggener, were slave owners.
On the slavery question, these men would have given you a dozen different answers. Waggener and Machir were known supporters of slavery, Hall was a supporter of gradual emancipation, Polsley the same so long as freed slaves couldn’t settle in the new state, and Rev. Harper would stand for nothing less than full and immediate abolition of slavery. But on the question of Union and Statehood, these same men all agreed. There was only one course of action.
When northern delegate and politician Waitman T. Willey wavered on the issue of statehood, not wanting to risk confrontation with Virginia and the Confederacy, it was Daniel Polsley who stood in the movement’s defense. And, lacking any record saying otherwise, I think it is safe to say that he spoke for the full Mason County delegation.
Willey’s legal opinion was that the Confederate States were akin to wayward children, unconstitutional, but still able to be brought back into the fold and bygones be bygones. As such, any proposal for statehood would be triple treason against the State of Virginia, Confederate
States, and United States Constitution, and two wrongs don’t make a right. He asked the convention, was there not another way?
Polsley, by all accounts, rose with hellfire in his eyes and delivered an answer so forceful and passionate that this unknown country lawyer was chosen as the new state’s lieutenant governor at the Second Wheeling Convention. To his view, in seceding from the authority of the U.S. Constitution, Virginia’s state officials had abandoned their positions in favor of an unrecognized and rebellious cause, leaving the constitutional government in a state of anarchy. To Willey’s point, if there were any treason to their actions, they’d have already committed it by holding the Wheeling Conventions, but as the state government was abandoned, they were well within their rights to reorganize it and had better get on with it. There was a war on, after all.
That speech won over enough delegates to guarantee the passage of Senator Carlile’s statehood resolution, and in the process, guaranteed Mason County’s political standing in the new state. Polsley, as I said, was elected the first lieutenant governor, our delegate John Hall was president of the Second Wheeling Convention that drafted the state’s first constitution, our state senator John Phelps was the first president of the West Virginia Senate, and our first two U.S. congressmen were from this county, Kellian V.R. Whaley and Polsley.
Information from the WV Archives and Weekly Register.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.