October 11, 1811: State Founder Waitman Willey Born

Oct 11, 2017

State founder and Senator Waitman Willey negotiated a key compromise on slavery, known as the Willey Amendment, that allowed West Virginia to join the Union.
Credit e-WV / WV Humanities Council

State founder Waitman Willey was born near Farmington in Marion County on October 11, 1811. He opened his first law practice in Morgantown in 1833 and served as Monongalia County Court clerk for more than a decade.

Willey gained statewide attention for his “Liberty and Union” speech at the 1850-51 Virginia Constitutional Convention. At the start of the Civil War, he spoke passionately against secession and war. After Virginia seceded from the Union, Willey was elected to represent the loyal citizens of Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

Although he initially opposed breaking away from Virginia and forming a new state, he gradually switched his views and negotiated a key compromise on slavery, known as the Willey Amendment, that allowed West Virginia to join the Union. He then served as one of West Virginia’s first two U.S. senators from 1863 to 1871.

Although Willey had owned slaves before the war, he moderated his views on the subject and spoke eloquently for African-American suffrage at West Virginia’s Constitutional Convention in 1872.

Sometimes called the Father of West Virginia, Waitman Willey died in Morgantown in 1900 at age 88.