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Howard Swint: Why W.Va. helped pay Va.'s Civil War debt

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At the close of West Virginia's sesquicentennial year, one of the more compelling aspects of the formation of our new state in the depths of the Civil War centers on why West Virginia's founders insisted on paying a share of Virginia's antebellum public debt.

After all, generations of Western Virginians had suffered political underrepresentation at the hands of the Richmond-based "cousinocracy" and enjoyed precious little benefit from the Virginia Board of Public Works, save the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

So why, when the opportunity was at hand to once and for all sever ties to the Old Dominion, would loyalist Western Virginians memorialize in their new Constitution the legal requirement to "take upon itself a just proportion of the public debt of the commonwealth of Virginia?"

Indeed, what makes the concept even more inconceivable is that, at the time, many of West Virginia's founders had been threatened with the physical and financial ruin of their families and that of their associates for the years leading up to statehood.

And their very communities were on the front lines of devastating Confederate raids bent on indiscriminate economic destruction, especially along the B&O Railroad from Harpers Ferry to Fairmont, as well as the oil fields near the Ohio River.

Then, with the Lincoln administration and Congress ready to go to extralegal and duplicitous political extremes of forming a new state, West Virginia's founders saw fit to reward those whose bellicose secession from the United States significantly strengthen the cause of the Confederacy?

Why?

The answer may well be as complex as the question and more than likely rests with what banks originally financed the debt for the Virginia Board of Public Works, as well as those who owned the underlying public bonds and private stocks.

And the presumption is that Northern banks, along with European financiers, held Virginia's debt as it survived the Civil War despite the complete bankruptcy of Virginia's financial institutions, underwritten by worthless confederate currency, and the near total destruction of the funded infrastructure.

Also in support of this theory is the very fact that West Virginia included the funding mechanism in her Constitution -- something that members of Congress from Northern states more than likely insisted upon for voting in favor of statehood as a partial guarantee to their constituents' presumed interests.

West Virginians may well have benefited, too, as many of the state's banks and wealthier citizens likely held financial interests and the nascent state would have to have good standing going forward to secure future financing.

What is certain, though, is that, after decades of legal wrangling, it would not be until 1939 that West Virginia would finally pay off the bonds issued for the court-ordered $12,393,929.50 settlement with Virginia, plus 5 percent annual interest.

So, in a sense, West Virginia's founders agreed to pay a future price for statehood and Virginia eventually agreed to that price by accepting payment, dropping any future claim to repatriation and formally recognizing the Great State of West Virginia.

Lincoln stated, "It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the Constitution and secession in favor of the Constitution."

Swint is a commercial property broker and political activist in Charleston.


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