Waitman T. Willey (1811–1900)


Waitman T. Willey was a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850–1851, a delegate to the Virginia Convention of 1861 that voted to secede from the Union, a United States senator from the Restored government of Virginia (1861–1863), and, alongside Peter G. Van Winkle, one of the first two United States senators from West Virginia (1863–1871). A native of western Virginia, he was instrumental in the formation of the new state of West Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). As a member of the U.S. Senate, he authored the Willey Amendment in 1863—a compromise on the question of the freedom of the state’s African Americans that extinguished his hopes for compensated emancipation. Instead, it decreed that enslaved people younger than twenty-one years old on July 4, 1863, would become free once they reached that age. The compromise assured West Virginia’s acceptance into the Union.

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 Whig Party, 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 John B. Floyd. 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 the election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president in November 1860, Willey, a staunch Unionist, was elected a delegate to a convention meeting in the state capital of Richmond 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 Ordinance of Secession, 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.

October 18, 1811
Waitman Thomas Willey is born on Buffalo Creek, Monongalia County, Virginia (now West Virginia).
June 1831
Waitman T. Willey graduates from Madison College in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
November 1831
Waitman T. Willey joins the Methodist Episcopal Church; he will be an active member for the rest of his life.
September 1833
Waitman T. Willey passes the Virginia bar.
October 11, 1834
Waitman T. Willey marries Elizabeth Evans Ray and moves to Morgantown.
Waitman T. Willey is defeated in his run for the General Assembly.
Joining the Sons of Temperance, Waitman T. Willey becomes a vocal advocate for the cause.
Waitman T. Willey is a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention; there, he argues in favor of the mixed basis of representation and universal white manhood suffrage.
Waitman T. Willey is defeated in his run for the U.S. Congress as the Whig Party candidate.
As a member of the opposition party, Waitman T. Willey runs for lieutenant governor of Virginia and loses.
May 1860
Waitman T. Willey serves as a delegate to the Constitutional Union Party convention, which nominates John Bell and Edward Everett for U.S. president and vice president.
April 1861
Waitman T. Willey represents western Virginia as a member of the Virginia Convention in Richmond, voting against the Ordinance of Secession.
May 13—15, 1861
Waitman T. Willey is a member of the First Wheeling Convention, where the delegates propose to wait until the public has an opportunity to vote on the secession ordinance before deciding how to react to Virginia's decision.
July 1861
Waitman T. Willey is appointed to the U.S. Senate from the Restored government of Virginia to serve the remainder of James Mason's term.
October 24, 1861
Voters in western Virginia overwhelmingly pass a new state ordinance. It would form the new U.S. state of Kanawha, consisting of thirty-nine western counties and seven additional counties to be added after the vote on statehood ordinance.
November 1861—February 1862 and February 1863
Waitman T. Willey is a member of the West Virginia Constitutional Convention, although he must split his time between Wheeling and Washington, D.C., to fulfill his duties as U.S. senator.
May 29, 1862
U.S. senator Waitman T. Willey of Virginia presents a memorial to the U.S. Senate to create a new state. The memorial is referred to the Committee on Territories, where John S. Carlile of Virginia drafts the first version of the statehood bill for West Virginia.
July 1, 1862
U.S. senator Waitman Willey of Virginia proposes a compromise West Virginia statehood bill, subsequently known as the Willey Amendment, that establishes gradual slave emancipation and removes fifteen Shenandoah Valley counties.
July 14, 1862
The West Virginia statehood bill passes through the U.S. Senate, thanks to the Willey Amendment, named for Waitman T. Willey.
December 10, 1862
The West Virginia statehood bill passes in the U.S. House of Representatives.
December 31, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln signs the West Virginia statehood bill, despite reservations about its constitutionality.
February 12, 1863
West Virginia Constitutional Convention delegates again gather at Wheeling to debate the Willey Amendment changes to the West Virginia Constitution. These changes would remove fifteen Shenandoah Valley counties and call for the gradual emancipation of slaves.
February 17, 1863
West Virginia Constitutional Convention delegates at Wheeling accept the Willey Amendment changes to the West Virginia Constitution. These changes remove fifteen Shenandoah Valley counties and call for the gradual emancipation of slaves.
June 20, 1863
The newly elected governor, Arthur I. Boreman, in front of Wheeling delegates, proclaims West Virginia the thirty-fifth state. Only forty-eight of the fifty existing counties become part of the new state. The other two, Berkeley and Jefferson, will be added in 1866.
March 1871
Waitman T. Willey leaves the U.S. Senate in the wake of a Democratic sweep of state elections.
Waitman T. Willey is a member to the second West Virginia Constitutional Convention, the only member to serve at both conventions.
Waitman T. Willey is a member to the Republican National Convention.
May 2, 1900
Waitman T. Willey dies at his home in Morgantown, West Virginia, at the age of eighty-eight.
  • Ambler, Charles H. Waitman T. Willey: Orator, Churchman, Humanitarian. Huntington, W.Va.: Standard Printing & Publishing Co., 1954.
  • Ambler, Charles H. West Virginia: The Mountain State. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1940.
  • Curry, Richard O. A House Divided: A Study of Statehood Politics and the Copperhead Movement in West Virginia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964.
  • Link, William A. Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Rice, Otis K. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.
APA Citation:
Fredette, Allison. Waitman T. Willey (1811–1900). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/willey-waitman-t-1811-1900.
MLA Citation:
Fredette, Allison. "Waitman T. Willey (1811–1900)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 18 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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