Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Booknotes: The Fifth Border State

New Arrival:
The Fifth Border State: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Formation of West Virginia, 1829–1872 by Scott A. MacKenzie (WVU Press, 2023).

From the description: "Every history of West Virginia’s creation in 1863 explains the event in similar ways: at the start of the Civil War, political, social, cultural, and economic differences with eastern Virginia motivated the northwestern counties to resist secession from the Union and seek their independence from the rest of the state." The most recent book following this vein that I've read is Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia (2020). Offering a very different version of West Virginia's origins, Scott MacKenzie's new interpretation found in his book The Fifth Border State: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Formation of West Virginia, 1829–1872 "corrects earlier histories’ tendency to minimize support for slavery in the state’s founding."

From an outside perspective gained only through popular and scholarly secondary works, it seems odd and rather strikingly reductive to try to argue that the predominant driving force behind the West Virginia statehood movement was to protect slavery, but McKenzie claims just that, this conclusion derived from his "use of previously neglected evidence and reassessment of existing materials." In the author's view, the common belief that western Virginia citizens of 1861 were different from those living in the existing Border States when it came to attitudes toward slavery has been based on "narrow and unrepresentative sources"(pg. 6).

More from the description: In The Fifth Border State, MacKenzie "argues that West Virginia experienced the Civil War in the same ways as the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Like these northernmost slave states, northwestern Virginia supported the institution of slavery out of proportion to the actual presence of enslavement there. The people who became West Virginians built a new state first to protect slavery, but radical Unionists and escaping slaves forced emancipation on the statehood movement."

The early-chapter discussions of the periods 1829-1851 and from there to the secession crisis argue that the western counties and the rest of the state "reconciled" over the "common ground of slavery," that rapprochement hardening during the turbulent 1850s. According to Mackenzie, the statehood movement's Conservative Phase (discussed in Chapter 4) solidified during the period August 1861-February 1862 before ultimately giving way to the Radical Phase between March 1862 and June 1863 (Chapter 5). Chapter 6 reviews the "consequences of emancipation for the new state," and the epilogue discusses how the alliance between conservative Unionists and ex-Confederates "redeemed" West Virginia in the same ways that it did in fellow border states Missouri and Maryland (pg. 7-8).

1 comment:

  1. Drew,
    I am really looking forward to your review and thoughts on this book.
    After reading the preface and thinking about it the author may be onto something here. Every history of West Virginia follows the same pattern. All histories focus on the poor mountaineers who have more in common with their neighbors in Ohio & Pennsylvania tired of being dominated be eastern tidewater elites and the complicated legal gymnastics that involved creating West Virginia. Depending on who you talk to a potentially illegal state.
    Start with all of the Border States are left out of the Emancipation Proclamation and territories under Federal Control. Include West Virginia in this “Border State” category.
    Significantly when West Virginia created a constitution in 1861 they sidestepped the issue of Emancipation. (Gradual Emancipation was a requirement for re-admission and the constitution had to be amended in 1866.) But basically, the opportunity was there to add Emancipation into the document in 1861 – similar to their Northern Brethren to emancipate slaves but they did not.
    Also, it is not as if other Border States did not Emancipate their slaves (albeit grudgingly) during the Civil War. Maryland Emancipated their slaves in 1864 as part of their Constitutional Convention and so did this Missouri legislature approve an ordinance abolishing Slavery in 1865. Kentucky as a state of course being different never formally enacted Emancipation until 1975. No amendment ever being proposed, and the 14th amendment being passed by a majority of states without Kentucky passing it.
    True, West Virginia wanted to strip all former Confederates of the right to participate in state government, but the adoption of the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment seems to have been a game changer in the post war era and West Virginia remained heavily Democratic afterwards.
    Perhaps Slavery ran deeper in West Virginia than we at first blush thought and support for Emancipation not so robust. My views have changed, and I think a case can be made that West Virginia first wanted an end to what they viewed as the authoritarian rule of Richmond, and it was not similarities in their culture with the North that were a driving factor in their quest for Statehood. Particularly in the area of Southern West VA which leaned towards Virginia and the 25,000 – 20,000 split of troops North to South. Lincoln probably realized this and thought that pushing Emancipation on West Virginia might wreck the plans to admit West VA to the Union as a reconstructed Free State and didn’t want to push the idea beyond Gradual Emancipation.
    Looking forward to reading.
    Curt Thomasco


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