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Lincoln and West Virginia statehood topic of humanities lecture

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation making possible the Emancipation Proclamation and West Virginia statehood were two of the most important bills Abraham Lincoln supported and signed into law, according to Lincoln scholar and author Harold Holzer.

"Both bills branched into uncharted constitutional territory, and both were of momentous importance to the country," said Holzer, who will deliver the annual Betsy K. McCreight Lecture in the Humanities at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Culture Center. The title of Holzer's presentation is "Emancipating West Virginia: Abe Lincoln Creates a State."

Holzer is the author, co-author or editor of more than 40 books on Lincoln and the Civil War era, including "1863: Lincoln's Pivotal Year," released earlier this year. In addition to serving as chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, he was script consultant for Steven Speilberg's 2012 film "Lincoln."

The question of West Virginia statehood had no easy answer for Lincoln, according to Holzer.

"He faced pushback from the right and from the left," Holzer said in a telephone interview last week. "Conservatives said West Virginia statehood would be unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent by acknowledging there was a path for secession" from another state. 

"From the left, there was concern that Lincoln, who campaigned on banning slavery in new territories in the West, was now asking for admission of what was essentially a slave state."

An amendment by Morgantown's Waitman Willey, a senator for the reorganized government of West Virginia, called for a gradual phase-out of slavery in the new state of West Virginia, making the statehood vote more palatable for congressional liberals.

"Lincoln needed a guarantee that West Virginia would start itself on the path of emancipation, and he got that from the Willey Amendment," Holzer said. "I think determining the constitutionality of the statehood question was harder for him."

Lincoln sought advice from his six-man Cabinet on whether or not creation of the new state was constitutional, and came up with a 3-3 tie.

"Lincoln was the tie-breaker," Holzer said. "He didn't have the kind of counseling that today's presidents have. And there was no polling to see whether Congress or the public was good with the idea of West Virginia statehood."

There was some political capital to be gained by favoring statehood, Holzer said.

"He realized that the prospect of having another state with two more Republican senators would help him pass a Constitutional amendment on slavery and get the appropriations needed to pursue the war," he said. "A little political calculus was involved."

The West Virginia Humanities Council is sponsoring Holzer's Charleston appearance. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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