February 17, 1863: W.Va. Constitutional Convention Adopts the Willey Amendment


On February 17, 1863, the West Virginia Constitutional Convention adopted the Willey Amendment, which settled the issue of slavery and paved the way for West Virginia to become the 35th state.

While slavery was relatively uncommon in most parts of the new state, West Virginia did have about 18,000 slaves—contrasted with a half-million living in Virginia. Although the issue was hotly debated at times, West Virginia’s founders ultimately decided to allow slavery within its borders. However, the issue was unacceptable to Congress, which had to approve West Virginia statehood. The so-called Radical Republicans in the U.S. Senate refused to admit another slave state without significant restrictions.

Senator Waitman Willey of Morgantown stepped in with a proposal. Working with fellow Republicans in the Senate, Willey formulated a compromise that allowed slavery in the state but provided for gradual emancipation over time. Since the Willey Amendment wasn’t part of the original statehood plan, the West Virginia Constitutional Convention had to be called back into session to approve the compromise. The convention’s approval cleared the last hurdle for West Virginia to become a state.