A choice of two different flags
This week, the state of West Virginia will celebrate the sesquicentennial of its birth – a brave and daring declaration of statehood that is unprecedented in American history.
Born out of the fiery turmoil of the Civil War 150 years ago, West Virginia was founded by patriots who were willing to risk their lives and fortunes in a united pursuit of justice and freedom for all.
To West Virginians, the names of Pierpont, Willey and Boreman are nearly as familiar as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin – each a pivotal figure in our state’s improbable journey to independence from Virginia and to our very own place in the Union.
But, of course, our forefathers could not have brought forth a new state conceived in liberty without the hand of Abraham Lincoln, who issued the proclamation creating West Virginia and establishing our state’s birthday as June 20, 1863.
And, characteristically, with few words, the 16th President dismissed the arguments of the day that his proclamation was illegal:
“It is said that the admission of West Virginia is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is a difference between secession against the Constitution, and secession in favor of the Constitution.”
Indeed, the people of West Virginia had a choice of two different flags to follow during the Civil War. There was, as Francis Pierpont pointed out, “no neutral ground.” The choice, he said, was “to stand by and live under the Constitution” or support the “the military despotism” of the Confederacy.
We chose wisely. We chose the Stars and Stripes; we chose allegiance to the country for which it stands; we chose to live under a Constitution that promised the constant pursuit of “a more perfect union” of states.
And ever since that historic beginning, we the people of West Virginia have never failed to answer our country’s call. No demand has been too great, no danger too daunting, and no trial too threatening.
The abundant natural resources of our state and the hard work and sacrifice of our people have made America stronger and safer. We mined the coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution, powered the railroads across the North American continent and still today produces electricity for cities all across this country. We stoked the steel factories that armed our soldiers for battles all across the globe and built the war ships that plowed the oceans of the world.
And we have filled the ranks of our military forces in numbers far greater than should be expected of our little state.
Consider this: According to U.S. Census data, West Virginia ranked first, second, or third in military casualty rates in every U.S. war of the 20th century – twice that of New York’s and Connecticut’s in Vietnam, and more than two and a half times the rate of those two states in Korea.
Today, 13.8 percent of West Virginia’s population is made up of veterans, the seventh-highest percentage among all states, higher than the national average of 12.1 percent, higher than more populous states like Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Michigan.
It’s like I always say – West Virginia is one of the most patriotic states in the country.
The best steel comes from the hottest fire, and the fires of the Civil War transformed West Virginia from a fragile hope to a well-tempered steely reality, dedicated to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.
West Virginia is great because our people are great – mountaineers who will always be free.
We are tough, independent, inventive and honest, our character shaped by the wilderness of our state – its rushing streams, its boundless blue skies, its divine forests, and its majestic mountains.
Our home is, in the words of best-selling novelist James Alexander Thom, “a place for health and high spirits, where one’s first look out the cabin door every morning (makes) the heart swell up.”
Thom wrote of our magnetic land as it existed long before it achieved statehood, but his words ring just as true of today’s West Virginia – of a state of natural beauty, world-class outdoor recreation, year-round festivals, ancient crafts, rich culture, strong traditions, industry and trade.
It is a place of coal mines and card tables, racing horses and soaring eagles, rocket boys and Right Stuff test pilots, sparkling lakes and magical mountains, breathtaking backcountry and barbecue joints, golf and the Greenbrier, battlefields and big time college football, college towns and small towns that are pure Americana.
It is a place of power, pulse and passion – the special place we call West Virginia, the special place we call home.
I admit – we’ve had our ups and downs, our setbacks and triumphs. We’ve had some pretty famous family feuds, and life can be tough sometimes. But the spirit of West Virginia has never been broken. And it never will. I learned that a long time ago, growing up in a small coal-mining town of hard-working men and women.
When things get tough, we get tougher.
It is as if we still hear the words of Francis Pierpont from 1861 when he told the delegates to the Second Wheeling Convention as they debated whether to secede from Virginia: “We are passing through a period of gloom and darkness but we must not despair. There is a just God, who rides upon the whirlwind and directs the storm.”
Or the words of President John F. Kennedy from the rain-soaked steps of the State Capitol in Charleston during our state’s Centennial celebration: “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.”
We are West Virginians. Even in the darkness and the gloom, we look to a just God who directs the storm.
We are West Virginians. We are the 35th state of these United States.
We are West Virginians. And like the brave, loyal patriots who made West Virginia the 35th star on Old Glory, our love of God and country and family and state is unshakeable.
And that is well worth celebrating every year.