Crucible of Union: Slavery and Democracy in the Founding of West Virginia

Sunshine, Daniel, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, History, University of Virginia

Crucible of Union locates Western Virginia at the center of political conflicts around the evolution of democracy in the era of the American Civil War. Powerful slaveholding politicians from Eastern Virginia built structural advantages for themselves into government. Their brand of slaveholder’s democracy helped fuel a new Western Virginian identity that championed White egalitarianism, public schooling, and often, temperance and restrained masculinity. This dissertation uses Waitman T. Willey and John S. Carlile, two founders of the state of West Virginia, as foils through which to examine this culture of reform. Part of an upwardly mobile, well-educated generation of Western elites, both used their newfound wealth to become enslavers. This work attempts to situate them within the landscape of slavery in Western Virginia, as well as to explore the lives of those they enslaved.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy in 1861, Willey and Carlile organized the state of West Virginia within the Union. As the United States began a violent struggle to shape what kind of democracy it would be, West Virginians grappled with these same questions as they created an original constitution. Southern Unionists are typically viewed as status-quo conservatives, but in Virginia, the very heart of the Civil War, a strain of progressive Southern Unionists built a new state that rejected the status-quo. Willey, a social and political reformer, was able to incorporate emancipation into his worldview, but Carlile, a political reformer only, tried to destroy the statehood movement when it became tied to the end of slavery. West Virginia represented the crucible of the new Union, one marked by free labor and an expanded role for the federal government.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American Civil War, West Virginia, Emancipation, Slavery, Border State, Virginia, Southern Unionism
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