Francis Pierpont: The unheralded ‘Father of West Virginia’
Francis Harrison Pierpont, the “Father of West Virginia,” was born in Monongalia County, not far from Morgantown, which was established by his grandfather. But he spent much of his life in Marion County, where the family moved when he was a young child.
Travis Henline, the former manager of Independence Hall in Wheeling, said Pierpont is one of the most important historical figures in West Virginia’s history.
“One of the things that surprises me the most about Francis Pierpont is that when you mention him to most people, they don’t know who he is,” Henline said. “He is one of the most unknown figures in West Virginia history, but one of the most important.”
When Pierpont was young, his family moved to Middletown, which eventually became Fairmont, where his father operated a tannery. He had some formal education in a small, one-room schoolhouse, but was largely self-taught.
“He read the classics, like the “Odyssey” and “The Iliad,” the Bible and others, and kind of educated himself,” Henline said. “That’s one of the compelling things about his story, is he came from very humble beginnings. He was not a part of the established Virginian aristocracy. His father was a tanner.”
In 1835, Pierpont entered Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. After graduation, he returned to Virginia and began working as a teacher in Harrison County. From there, Pierpont was appointed to a teaching academy in Mississippi.
“In Mississippi, he was confronted for the first time by the horrors of slavery,” Henline said. “When he returned to Virginia, he was a very outspoken abolitionist. He was never a politician, but he was very vocal.”
During that time teaching, Henline said Pierpont also began to study the law.
“Back then, there weren’t very many established law schools,” Henline said. “You would just read the law and sometimes serve an apprenticeship with an attorney, and then you would take the bar exam.”
Pierpont eventually became the lead counsel for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, as well as practicing law in private.
“He was also an entrepreneur,” Henline said. “He worked as a brick manufacturer and he owned interest in a coal mine. And of course this was on top of practicing as an attorney.”
In 1861, the Civil War began, and Virginia voted to secede from the Union.
“At this time, people in western Virginia were trying to decide what to do,” Henline said. “There were a couple huge meetings in Clarksburg, one for Unionists and one for Confederates. Then, on May 13, the First Wheeling Convention was held. Western Virginia was going to try to differentiate itself from Virginia, because most of the northern counties did not want to secede. Not much came of that convention, so they disbanded and decided to come back in a more formal way. Pierpont was at the convention and returned to his home in Fairmont. One night, he’s reading the Constitution in his study, and his wife hears him exclaim ‘Eureka! I have it!’
Pierpont had been looking at Article IV of the Constitution, which says in Section 3 that for a new state to be formed, it must receive permission from its parent state and from Congress.
“Pierpont’s plan was that they would form a new government of Virginia which was loyal to the United States,” Henline said. “The idea was that because the Virginian government had seceded, they were no longer the legitimate government of Virginia. Pierpont wanted to establish a Union government in Virginia, and then from that position, they would give themselves permission to become a new state. But they needed Congress to buy into it, they needed President Lincoln to buy into it, and they needed the people to buy into it.”
In June of 1861, Pierpont brought his idea to the Second Wheeling Convention, where he was unanimously elected to serve as the governor of what was called the Reorganized Government of Virginia.
“We know today that June 20, 1863 is the day West Virginia officially became a state,” Henline said. “But June 20 is a significant date for another reason as well. Two years before that, on June 20, 1861, Francis Pierpont was sworn in as the governor of the Reorganized Government of Virginia.”
The establishment of the Reorganized Government of Virginia marks the first and only time in American history that a state’s citizenry attempted to establish a new government.
“This was an unprecedented action,” Henline said. “But of course it was in the midst of an unprecedented Civil War. These were unprecedented times in the U.S. and nobody knew what was going to happen. Pierpont once referred to this as the fearful experiment, because any number of things could have gone wrong.”
After being sworn in, Pierpont immediately called for aid from President Lincoln, who provided it. After no small amount of debate, Congress seated two new U.S. senators and five U.S. representatives from the newly established government.“In essence, this meant that both the president and Congress had acknowledged that the government was legitimate,” Henline said
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