On March 26, 1863, voters overwhelmingly approved the first West Virginia Constitution, which had been nearly a year-and-a-half in the making. The constitutional debates had started at a convention in Wheeling in November 1861. Delegates tackled some surprisingly quarrelsome issues, such as the new state’s name and which counties to include.
The most expected controversy, though, arose over slavery. The issue finally came before Congress, which insisted upon a stronger anti-slavery position in the proposed constitution. The disagreement led to West Virginia statehood being delayed by a year. In the end, the constitution authorized the gradual emancipation of existing slaves and forbade all African-Americans, slave or free, from entering the new state.
The delegates approved the final constitution in February 1863, and, a month later, voters approved it by a margin of more than 28,000 in favor to fewer than 600 against.
The original constitution remained in effect for only nine years. It was rewritten in 1872 by Democrats—many former Confederates—who’d taken control of the governor’s office and legislature from Republicans, most of whom had supported the Union during the Civil War.