West Virginia University Press will publish Scott MacKenzie’s book The Fifth Border State: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Formation of West Virginia, 1829–1872 on January 1. Here MacKenzie talks with William Hal Gorby, author of our book Wheeling’s Polonia: Reconstructing Polish Community in a West Virginia Steel Town.
Gorby: West Virginia Statehood is such an intriguing story. What new perspectives do you hope to bring to this popular narrative?
MacKenzie: My goal was to un-intrigue the history of West Virginia’s formation. For 160 years, every book on the subject has explained the event in only one way. Inherent cultural, economic, social, and political differences, it goes, led the free labor-oriented counties of northwestern Virginia to separate from the slave plantation-based east at the start of the Civil War. This thesis has two flaws. First, it underestimates how much the region’s white population supported slavery. Given that the ‘peculiar institution’ caused the conflict, it is impossible that it played little or no role in the state’s genesis. Second, it focuses too closely on intra-state relations while neglecting possible broader contexts. Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware also believed that the remaining within the Union better protected slavery than seceding from it. I think that West Virginia formed for the same reason, differing from the others only in not being a state yet. My approach should prompt serious rethinking about the subject within the state and in the wider academic field.
Most people think slavery did not play much of a role in Western Virginia before the Civil War, but your book shows this general assumption is not correct. What role did the institution of slavery play here?Read More »