West Virginia's Civil War-Era Constitution: Loyal Revolution, Confederate Counter-Revolution, and the Convention of 1872, By John Stealey, to be published by the Kent State University Press, $135, 800 pages.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The '60s were a revolutionary time. Traditional ways of thinking and living were no longer satisfactory for many people. New thinkers and leaders arose, expressing revolutionary ideas about human rights, freedom, justice, and progress. People thought new thoughts, wrote new words, sang new songs, and spoke out and acted for social change.
The era in West Virginia is vividly portrayed in Shepherd University historian John Stealey's forthcoming book "West Virginia's Civil War-Era Constitution: Loyal Revolution, Confederate Counter-Revolution, and the Convention of 1872," published by the Kent State University Press.
I meant the 1860s. You knew that, right?
When the 1860s began, Virginians had a wide spectrum of ideas about how people should live and be governed. Conservative ideas emphasized guaranteeing liberty through the preservation of the rights and powers of aristocratic, property-owning interests -- while more revolutionary ideas believed that liberty required the expansion of democratic rights and powers and opportunities for all. Revolutionary ideas had always been strongest in western Virginia, and these ideas found their expression in the new laws adopted by the people who created West Virginia in 1861-63.
For example, West Virginia's founders replaced the old Virginia "county court" governmental system, dominated by wealthy interests, with a "township" system -- where ordinary people made local governmental decisions. Unfortunately, after the right to vote was restored to former Confederate West Virginians, the "revolutionary" township system did not survive the "counter-revolution" of 1872.
Other revolutionary ideas put into place by West Virginia's statemakers had more staying power. For example, Virginia law did not require that children have a right to a free public education. In Virginia, private academies served the wealthy, and the rest of the citizenry got by as they could, with no system of free public schools.
To remedy this situation, leaders like the heroic Captain Gordon Battelle of Clarksburg, a minister and school principal and statehood leader, who died in 1862 while serving in the Union Army, led the Wheeling Conventions to establish a free public educational system for all West Virginia children. And this system survived and thrived in the new state.
Another revolutionary measure with staying power was the secret ballot. Virginia law required voters to declare their votes "viva voce," (out loud and in public.) Voters were frequently pressured and even punished for their votes by the wealthy and powerful. West Virginia's founders believed in the revolutionary idea that a person's ballot choices should be counted, but not revealed; and that idea also took hold and lasted.