Waitman Thomas Willey was born on October 18, 1811, in present-day West Virginia. After attending Madison College in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Willey settled in Morgantown, Virginia, to practice law. A member of the, Willey made an unsuccessful bid for the Virginia General Assembly in 1840, served in a number of local political positions, and was a popular speaker at events such as literacy society and temperance meetings. He advocated for western Virginians’ rights at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850–1851, which had been called by Virginia governor . Willey argued that eastern elites were monopolizing political power and urged the convention to accept universal white manhood suffrage. Though the convention reached a compromise between the state’s feuding factions, it favored the eastern portion of the state, leaving western Virginians, including Willey, frustrated with their position in state politics.
Amid the uproar over theas U.S. president in November 1860, Willey, a staunch Unionist, was elected a delegate to a convention meeting in the state capital of in February 1861 to consider the issue of secession. There, he warned that if eastern Virginia delegates chose to leave the Union, it would “dissolve this State.” Nonetheless, on April 17, 1861, after Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress the “insurrection” in Charleston, South Carolina, the delegates passed the , with a majority of western Virginia delegates still in opposition. They, along with Willey, left the convention immediately. On his way home, Willey was violently threatened by bands of vigilantes.
In May 1861, the First Wheeling Convention met to discuss the future of western Virginia. Willey argued that westerners should declare the Richmond government illegitimate and reorganize the state government. This new Virginia government would then be constitutionally equipped to approve a new state’s formation. After the plan’s approval, Willey was appointed to the U.S. Senate by the Restored government of Virginia. In addition, after a public vote on the new state ordinance, Willey became a member of the West Virginia Constitutional Convention.
The introduction of the West Virginia statehood bill in Congress caused significant debate about its status as a free or slave state. Radical Republicans, like Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, argued for immediate emancipation as a requirement for the state’s admission. A former enslaver, Willey was reluctant to embrace such terms and initially supported emancipation only if it was accompanied by compensation for the economic losses incurred. Yet, after intense discussion, Willey offered a compromise stating that “all slaves under twenty-one years old on July 4, 1863, should be free on arriving at that age.” The Willey Amendment secured the acceptance of the statehood bill by the U.S. Senate in July 1862 and by the U.S. House of Representatives in December. Ultimately, Willey forfeited his desire for compensated emancipation for his larger goal of a separate state. His dream was realized when West Virginia officially became a state on June 20, 1863. He was elected that year to the U.S. Senate as a Republican representing the new state, and reelected in 1865, serving until 1871.
By that time, Democrats had regained power from Republicans in West Virginia, and Willey was replaced in the Senate. He attended another constitutional convention in 1872 and died in Morgantown, West Virginia, on May 2, 1900.